Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cactus Hill Site, Virginia

The Cactus Hill site in southern Virginia is often mentioned as an important candidate for a pre-Clovis site. I visited the site in late 2001 when the Fairfax County (Virginia) archaeologist was excavating there. (I think his name was Michael Johnson. I lived in Fairfax County at the time, and he was very kind and professional.) I was accompanied by Timothy Beach, a geoarchaeologist from Georgetown; Sheryl Luzzadder Beach, a hydrologist and geographer from George Mason University; Kevin Pope, another geoarchaeologist; and Walter Witschey, then Director of the Science Museum of Virginia (now he's at Longwood University). Walter brought with him the director of a science museum in northern Europe (Finland? Norway?). We took the trip shortly after 9/11 and this European gentleman, who had been visiting Walter's museum, was trapped in the U.S. because air travel had been canceled after the terrorist attacks. With typical grace, Walter took the man home and settled him in the guest room.

Michael Johnson's excavations at Cactus Hill appeared to be very meticulous. You can see the individual artifacts marked with film canisters.

Unfortunately, you can see in the photos that the stratigraphy is poorly defined. The site is buried in an ancient sand dune. The sand is pretty heavily leached, obscuring the definition of the strata.

When I was there, someone--not Johnson--had excavated long trenches across the site with a backhoe, destroying parts of the site. This was sad because even if the site is not pre-Clovis, it defintiely has a major Clovis occupation, making it significant by any definition.


  1. Dr. Brown,
    I am an undergraduate studying Archaeology at Utah State University. I am currently studying the Cactus Hill site and whether or not it seems to hold up under scrutiny as showing clear evidence of pre-Clovis occupation. In your opinion, after visiting the site do you believe there is sufficent evidence to support this claim?

  2. Dear Anonymous:

    I have not read everything written about Cactus Hill, so I'm not well qualified to answer your question, but I'll offer you some observations that may be helpful. In the 11 years since I visited the site, a number of articles on its chronology, stratigraphy, and taphonomy have been published. They make a fairly good case that the site has a pre-Clovis cultural layer preserved beneath the Clovis occupation. Unfortunately, the two layers are not especially well-separated, making them hard to distinguish. Much more work could, and should, be done at the site, but it will have to be very meticulous to yield helpful results. Also in the last decade we have learned much more about pre-Clovis culture in the Americas, and so it is perhaps easier to believe that Cactus Hill falls into that category. Thus, my view is that while the case for Cactus Hill as a pre-Clovis site could be stronger, nevertheless, the preponderance of evidence supports that interpretation.