MOUNT VERNON, VA – On October 12, 2018, a group of students and teachers participating in an archaeology field trip to Mount Vernon helped to discover a stone axe head dating back to the fourth millennia BCE. The axe is roughly seven inches long and three inches wide. Similar axes date to the Archaic Period of Virginia’s history (4,500-8,000 years ago) and would have been an important part of the Native American toolkit roughly 6,000 years ago. The group made this archaeological discovery at Mount Vernon’s African American cemetery, which oral history suggests was the resting place for enslaved individuals and possibly some of their freed descendants.
The axe is particularly interesting because it represents the skill and craftsmanship of the maker. To create this axe, a craftsperson worked a river cobble by first “chipping” it with a hammer stone to create a cutting edge along the face of the axe. The burgeoning tool was then hammered with a harder stone to create a smoother cutting surface by removing smaller amounts of the raw stone from the axe. These surfaces appear to have been ground, or smoothed, one final time through the use of a hard grinding stone. Finally, a groove was pecked along the backend of the axe head. This groove would have facilitated the attachment of a wooden handle to the axe for its use in wood cutting.
“The axe provides a window onto the lives of individuals who lived here nearly 6000 years ago,” said Sean Devlin, Mount Vernon’s curator of archaeological collections. “Artifacts, such as this, are a vital resource for helping us learn about the diverse communities who shaped this landscape throughout its long history.”
The discovery took place along the ridgeline upon which the African American cemetery sits, which was used by communities of Virginia Indians as long ago as 8,000 years ago, and continuing for several thousand years afterwards based upon the archaeological evidence. While the site appears to have been continually occupied over this period, it was not necessarily a “village” site. Rather, the location was probably one of many temporary stopping over points for a community as they traveled along the river or exploited the resources of the area.
For Mount Vernon’s archaeologists, artifacts such as this axe help us interpret the daily lives of people in the past. Its archaeology program maintains an electronic database where data is recorded about every artifact recovered and where it was found. After cataloging objects, Mount Vernon’s team cleans, preserves, and stores all of our artifacts here on-site so they are available for researchers. The axe will join Mount Vernon’s rich archaeology collection of more than 50,000 artifacts cataloged from this site alone as the staff continue to learn more about and document the long history of human occupation at Mount Vernon. For more information about Mount Vernon’s archaeology program, please visit http://www.mountvernon.org/archaeology.