State’s archaeologist digs Virginia’s past
It could be an 18th-century shipwreck half-buried in James River muck, a stone flake, a bone fragment, charred soil, a bead or a chunk of brick. Every artifact unearthed by archaeologists, along with its setting and the soil where it is found, tells a story or part of a story.
Dr. Elizabeth Moore, the state archaeologist since 2019, leads efforts to document Virginia’s past — much of it “prehistory,” the time before the written word. Her job, Moore said, is to “tell the story we don’t know from the written record, a past that archaeology can inform.”
Spending hours painstakingly scraping dirt, crouched in a one-meter-by-one-meter pit or poring over stone flakes in a lab may be unappealing to some. But Moore and her staff are dedicated to the state’s history, she said, “because it’s so visible,” citing Jamestown, Mount Vernon and Monticello.
“How we relate to our complex past affects how we treat people today,” Moore said.
That’s why archaeology is so important, Moore said.
Development leads to finds
Archaeological work is under way all the time in Virginia, Moore noted. Before a developer can build a shopping center or the state can expand a highway, an archaeological investigation or excavation often must be conducted to determine if cultural resources will be affected, especially if federal funds, permits or licenses are involved.
In some cases, if archaeologists identify significant artifacts, developers must leave the site undisturbed. In other circumstances, the project is allowed to go forward, often with conditions.
For example, at a site in Salem, Virginia, excavators found half a million bones or bone fragments — evidence of a Native American village. It’s now a soccer complex.
Last spring, Moore visited a Henry County site, probably 7,000 years old, which the owner and locality want to develop as a recreational vehicle (RV) park.
Her team excavated and found fire-cracked rock left behind from a hearth, projectile points and what she calls “lithic debitage,” or stone flakes produced from making a tool. Moore saw her outreach as successful because the owner agreed to protect the site and post an archaeology exhibit.
The National Park Service estimates that six to seven million archaeological sites in the U.S. are under some legal protection, most on public land.
Several cities, including Fredericksburg and Alexandria, have preservation-focused archaeology ordinances. Richmond does not have such an ordinance, but the area has many potential sites in its former canals and Shockoe Bottom.
Our state’s prehistory
The human history of what became Virginia began 16,000 to 20,000 years before Jamestown — a timeframe that archaeologists continue to debate.
What’s not debatable is that Virginia’s history long precedes the 1607 founding of the Jamestown colony, when English colonists arrived and displaced Native Americans.
In fact, Virginia has one of the oldest Native American sites ever discovered in North and South America. Cactus Hill, in today’s Sussex County, appears to be more than 15,000 years old.
Moore’s research focuses on how animal remains, such as bones, shells and hides, and vestiges of DNA or proteins help reveal how people in the mid-Atlantic region have used animals over time for subsistence, economic, ceremonial and social purposes.
For example, the animal remains found at Pittsylvania County’s Oak Hill Plantation in 2015 suggest that wild animals were a staple food for the enslaved people there, likely supplementing the food provided by the plantation owners.
Balancing academia, field work
A New York native, Moore earned her doctoral and master’s degrees in anthropology from American University and her undergraduate degree from the State University of New York at Potsdam.
Moore came to Richmond from the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, where she was curator of archaeology and assistant director of research and collections.
Moore has authored or co-authored numerous technical reports and articles in professional journals and chapters in several books. She co-authored The Archaeology of Virginia’s First Peoples, published in 2020.
From her office in the Department of Historic Resources (DHR), Moore manages the Threatened Sites Program and awards grants to protect at-risk archaeological sites.
She has overseen laboratory analysis and investigation of artifact collections. She also led volunteers during events with the Archeological Society of Virginia, the Council of Virginia Archaeologists and the U.S. Forest Service’s Passport in Time program.
From 2007 to 2019, as chair of the State Review Board, Moore provided advice on historic properties under consideration for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.
Moore is responsible for preserving more than six million Virginia artifacts stored in Richmond, including Paleo-Indian projectile points or arrowheads, stone tools, Colonial ceramics, glass bottles, beads, buckles, bookbinding hinges and Native American ceramics.
The public can see some of these artifacts at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Historic Jamestowne, Colonial Williamsburg National Historical Park and Alexandria’s Archaeology Museum.
Recent discoveries in Virginia
Moore is excited about a project near Cape Charles on Virginia’s Eastern Shore that dates to the mid-1600s. Located across the Chesapeake Bay from the much-researched Jamestown, it’s in an area rarely studied by archaeologists.
A storm toppled a tree, exposing artifacts that had never been disturbed. Embedded in the tree’s roots was evidence of Dutch-made bricks, glass bottles and buckles of European origin, indicating that the Europeans had traded with Native Americans.
Moore hopes to build collaboration with Native American tribes and the descendant community. Native Americans, including Virginia tribes, historically were not treated well in this country, Moore pointed out.
“For decades archaeologists have not worked well with others outside their discipline — have not talked to tribal members,” she said.
“Archaeology as a science is not just data and objective descriptions of artifacts. When dealing with people’s ancestors, it is critical to take into account many viewpoints.”
Listening to those viewpoints with respect is also critical, she said. Native Americans “have a very deep history with a great deal of meaning and nuance.”
Moore’s department also partners with Richmond on projects like documenting historic African American cemeteries. This past year, DHR staff has helped prepare a nomination for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground to the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is an important place in understanding some of Richmond’s and Virginia’s difficult history,” she said.
Surveying history by kayak
Moore’s staff will soon survey resources in Richmond’s parks along the James River to locate sites where people lived, camped and fished.
Archaeologists will also kayak along the Smith River in Henry County this year to document cultural resources, like the remains of mills and dams.
Moore also manages an inventory of historic underwater resources on state properties in rivers, including the James, and shipwrecks along the state’s Atlantic coast. No one knows how many shipwrecks exist in the state — “probably hundreds,” Moore estimates.
Moore is always looking forward to the next discovery, which can lead to a clearer picture of the past.
“There’s so much we don’t know.”