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NIH Record

Archaeologists Uncover Evidence of
Indian Past on NIH Campus

By Jan Ehrman

On the Front Page...
A warm, summerlike breeze just might whisk you back there -- to a youthful time when you ventured excitedly into your backyard with your best friend, shovel in hand, and proceeded to dig deep into the soil in hopes of finding a pirate's treasure -- or whatever could be unearthed. Maybe your catch of the day turned out to be some bloodworms, a jagged piece of glass, or if you were more fortunate, a buffalo nickel or an Indian head penny. More realistically what you ended up with was filthy clothes, a dirty face, and a chiding from mom.

Recently, for nearly a month, a similar scene was replayed in our federal "backyard." Only the kids were adults -- archaeologists to be precise. And there was no parental disdain, only the inquisitive minds of NIH employees trekking alongside West Drive, some of whom stopped to get the real "dirt" on the situation. Meanwhile, the determined excavators have since come away with considerably more than just bloodworms.

This archaeological dig took place on a plot of hilly, historic land termed "the Knoll," a tranquil site located between the Children's Inn and the Clinical Center. In the months to come, construction of the new Clinical Research Center will abut this property.

Archaeologist Elizabeth A. Comer led the excavation of the NIH "Knoll" site.

Led by Archaeologist Elizabeth A. Comer and a team of eight assistants, the crew spent several weeks during May and June digging 5-foot-square openings into the Earth, each 3-4 feet deep. Their efforts did not go unrewarded, yielding a wide variety of fairly well-preserved Native American cultural material that may have been around as far back as 3,000 years ago.

The archaeologists believe that the NIH grounds, and in particular the Knoll, were likely a hunting and gathering site for native tribes and early historic (European) settlement. The objects uncovered by the team, including gunflints, quartzite and other types of rock, ceramic plate, nails, glass, wire, oyster shells, and related items seem to tell much about these early inhabitants who used the land long before NIH became a household name. While it may be impossible to say which Indian tribes settled here, the artifacts provide intriguing lifestyle information to scientists such as Comer. Further historical research may reveal the names of early settlers who inhabited the site in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Many artifacts such as quartzite rock and ceramics, some as old as 3,000 years, have been plucked from NIH soil.

"Based on the Indian artifacts we have found, we estimate the time periods here to be Late Archaic to Early Woodland, or as far back as 3,000 years," said Comer. She added that whatever group lived on the Knoll, the evidence strongly suggests they were well adapted to the environment. "For example, some of the material we found, like quartzite rocks, appears in some cases to have been sharpened into projectile points and used for hunting and protection (knives and arrowheads), for gathering and preparing food (cutting and skinning rabbit and deer hides), and for making clothes." Further testimony to the prehistoric occupants' resourcefulness, Comer added, comes from their use of the environs. "The Potomac River was nearby of course, so there was always plenty of fresh water and fish available. These individuals were here for the same reason we're here -- the area was habitable and attractive, and it had life-sustaining resources nearby. And, as always, adaptation to the local environment was truly the name of the game," explained Comer, who first became interested in excavation around age 5. Her childhood interest was fueled by reading her parents' issues of National Geographic, so her career decision was very easy.

A worker on Comer's team sifts through the soil for Indian artifacts.

Noteworthy findings aside, the recent archaeological undertaking was not a serendipitous event. The fertile grounds of NIH, which used to be part of both Frederick and Prince George's counties, have been thoroughly researched over the years, and already lay claim to a good deal of landscape and archaeological history. Last November, Comer, who owns the Laurel, Md.,-based company that provided the month-long investigation (Elizabeth Anderson Comer/Archaeology) was chosen to conduct a preliminary basic survey or field examination of the Knoll. The survey is standard procedure in the trade. Prior to beginning any construction activities on projects with federal involvement, the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 dictates that a search must be conducted for cultural resources that might be eligible for admission to the National Register of Historic Places. "That is precisely why we're here," said Comer. "That and to capture and preserve information prior to the march of the modern world."

From the start, Comer believed the Knoll to be a particularly good site for excavation because the grounds, formerly farmland, were never disturbed by natural disasters such as flooding, or by erosion, plowing, construction or underground utilities -- factors that often inhibit or totally prevent excavation. "The natural soil levels here are really intact -- we didn't have any of that (upheaval) happen here," explained Comer, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland. She noted that in excavating Knoll soil, she and her colleagues found artifacts as shallow as 6 inches below the surface.

Prehistoric "treasures" have previously been discovered on similar plots of NIH land, such as the Taylor site, an extensively investigated area approximately 600 feet long by 200 feet wide in the southeast corner of the NIH campus, close to the National Library of Medicine and Wisconsin Ave. According to the NIH Record, back in the 1970's an NIH tree maintenance worker named Vernon Taylor spent his "leisurely" time walking around campus, picking up Indian artifacts from various NIH locations, including the eponymous Taylor and Knoll areas. According to Comer, "he was in reality a very good local collector." (The Record reported that Taylor collected more than 500 arrowheads from all over upper Montgomery County). A bountiful quantity of artifacts was also recovered by archaeologists researching the Taylor location in the early 1980's, especially debitage -- debris left over from the manufacturing of tools such as projectile points or arrowheads, which were made primarily from quartz or quartzite. Shards of pottery were also obtained: one type, known as Accokeek pottery, was presumably made around 2,700 B.C. These endeavors set an encouraging precedent for Comer's most recent dig.

"One thing the early inhabitants would do, for instance, is take rock, like the quartzite rock we're finding, and use it as a hammer, hitting it against other rock. Doing so they formed knives, scrapers, and projectile points," said Jennifer Flippo, an archaeologist working on the project with Comer. "What we're pulling out are the flakes that came from the rocks when they were banged together."

In the waning days of their project, Comer and her team are seizing information that may ultimately tell us a great deal not only about the past, but perhaps also the present. She admits that while there's no evidence of teepees on the Bethesda campus (teepees were used by equestrian Plains tribes in the West during the post-European contact period), "what our findings from this site will do is enable us to more fully comprehend the prehistoric settlement of these early Native American pioneers -- their diet, lifestyle rituals, survival mechanisms, religion and other issues of the time." We may also come away with a better understanding of ourselves, she concluded.

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