The Disdain of Southwest Virginia Archeology

Jim Glanville

This columnist attended the three-day Archeological Society of Virginia meeting held in Winchester over the weekend of Oct. 14.

I spoke there about the history of Indian relic collecting in Smyth and Washington Counties and the evidence it provides for Mississippian culture in those counties.

Mississippian is a poorly defined term that describes the American Indian societies that occupied the Mississippi River watershed and the Deep South during the period 800-1600 AD.

The people of these societies were generally mound builders, relied on maize-based sustenance, had social ranks, engaged in ceremonial activities, produced highly artistic objects with iconic designs from marine shell, copper, pottery, etc., and engaged in long distance trade and exchange.

Relic collecting is the currently frowned-upon practice of wealthy persons accumulating artistic objects dug from Indian burials.

The Winchester meeting drew 63 speaker presentations divided among eleven sessions, with each presentation lasting 20 minutes and almost all using Powerpoint. The speakers were a mixture of avocational and professional archeologists.

The Mississippian evidence of Smyth and Washington Counties is overwhelming when examined from unconventional archeology sources such as private relic collections, the relic collectors’ literature, contemporary newspaper accounts, and museum displays in Saltville and New Jersey.

In a 1990 article coauthored with the late Gene Barfield, the present Virginia State Archeologist Mike Barber wrote “the presence of these Mississippian origin artifacts in an isolated area of Virginia has caused some consternation in Virginia archaeology.” It was a comment Barber has never followed up on.

We now understands that these two counties came to adopt the Mississippian culture because the Holston River and its tributaries connected them to that same culture downstream in the Tennessee River Valley, and because their karst topography provided many caves where Indian ceremonial life could move underground as an alternative to mound building.

Until less than a hundred years ago, archeology was mostly relic collecting. The highly publicized opening of King Tut’s tomb did not occur until 1923. The fictional Indiana Jones was at work in the 1930s.

The Archeological Society of Virginia was founded Jan. 8, 1940, at a meeting at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, when 17 Virginians organized it as “The Virginia Indian Relic Collectors’ Club.”

The purpose of modern prehistoric archeology in southwest Virginia must surely be to tell the story of the region’s pre-Columbian inhabitants. That is the story of the Yuchi Indians.

They left no written records, so the only way to tell their story is through their oral history and through the rich assemblage of artifacts they buried with their prominent tribal members.

 

As I noted in a recent column, in 1541 and 1567 Spanish expeditions encountered the Yuchi Indians in southwest Virginia, so their documented, written history begins in the sixteenth century.

In Winchester, the after-dinner banquet speaker, Alexandria City archeologist Dr. Eleanor Breen, spoke engagingly about the investigation of the wooden ship hulks uncovered during the redevelopment of the city’s Potomac River Waterfront.

Shenandoah University historian Dr. Warren Hofstra led an evening public education forum on Shenandoah Valley history.

In this latter session Dr. Jonathan Noyalas, the director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute, spoke with the title “Still as Much a Slave Today”: The Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans’ Quest for Freedom in the Civil War’s Aftermath.”

This was a fine but heart-wrenching talk about the only very slow changes in the post Civil War treatment of black Americans in the Valley.

Of the 63 presentations, roughly 20 dealt with archeological sites in counties that adjoin the Chesapeake Bay or near rivers that feed the Bay; seven dealt with Rappahannock County and its Indians; seven dealt with  Fairfax County; five dealt with  Jamestown, and specifically with the exhumation of the skeleton thought to be of Governor George Yeardley and, several dealt with the Shenandoah Valley.

The nearest site discussed to southwest Virginia (other than my presentation) was far away in New London in Campbell County.

One Winchester session was devoted to presentations by local or regional chapters of the Archeological Society of Virginia.

There are 16 such chapters and representatives of 10 of these chapters made presentations. Notably absent were presentations from chapters in the southwestern part of Virginia such as the Roanoke, Blue Ridge, New River, and Wolf Hills (Abingdon) chapters.

As a recent column pointed out, our state’s written history begins with the sixteenth century Spanish invasion of southwest Virginia 40 years before English settlement on the James River.

In Morganton, North Carolina, Fort San Juan (from where the Spanish departed in 1567 to attack Saltville) has become a major-league archeological site that predates Jamestown.

Thumbing their noses at Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed 1584 attempt to settle Roanoke Island, Fort San Juan archeologists waggishly call it the “first lost colony.”

Spanish history, and modern developments in Yuchi history, tell a settlement story that rivals and plausibly surpasses the well-known English settlement story. Arguably, the first ten governors of Virginia were Spaniards based in Florida.

Perhaps with some prodding the Virginia archeology establishment can be provoked to embrace a more complete version of the state’s prehistory.

As unpalatable as relic collecting may be in some quarters, Virginia’s most significant prehistory is clearly in its southwest region, and relic collections tell the tale.

 

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia. He can be reached at jglanvil@blacksburg.net.

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