East Steubenville Ridgetop from downtown Steubenville.

In 1938, members of the West Virginia Archaeological Society discovered the East Steubenville site, perched on a high ridgetop, 300 feet above the Ohio River. Here, they found the remains of an ancient Native American encampment, marked by
Artifacts and shell similar to those first found at the East Steubenville site in 1938. Clockwise from top: freshwater mussel shell, Steubenville spearpoints and drill, netsinker, and bone awls. Click to enlarge.
lance-shaped spearpoints and drills of flint, pointed awls of bone and antler, and stone adzes and fish net weights, scattered among a shell midden--discarded shells of freshwater mussel that the prehistoric visitors had harvested in the Ohio River and then eaten above on the ridgetop.

Thirteen years later, this evidence of a unique hunter-gatherer lifeway at the East Steubenville site led a Carnegie Museum archaeologist to define the 4000-year-old Panhandle Archaic culture for the Upper Ohio Valley, literally rewriting the region's Native American prehistory.


In 1999, WVDOT recognized that planned construction of the WV2 four-lane upgrade would remove the ridgespur where the East Steubenville site lay. Faced with destruction of this important Panhandle Archaic site, WVDOT archaeologists laid plans for a data recovery excavation. In 1999-2000, excavators found the tools and food remains of these prehistoric Native Americans, telling us how they lived, and unexpectedly discovered human burials that revealed much about who these people were.

Archaeological excavations ran from November, 1999, to November 2000. Fieldwork included test pits to find artifacts and food remains scattered over the site, followed by topsoil stripping to uncover prehistoric pits and fire hearths. Our fieldwork showed that Native American visitors to the East Steubenville Site only camped on the crest and upper flanks of the ridgespur. Unfortunately, several decades of unsystematic digging by relic collectors had disturbed some of the site-mostly in the shell midden along the ridgeflanks.

Archaeologists excavating test unit under weatherport
Digging by test squares in the undisturbed parts of the site produced a wealth of artifacts-worn or broken tools of stone and bone discarded by the Native American inhabitants. For this work, we used flat shovels and trowels to peel back the soil layers, and mesh screens to separate artifacts from the excavated earth.

As winter closed in, we erected small weatherports for shelter and continued working.




Weatherports for Winter Excavations

Prehistoric Shell Midden Uncovered by Excavations
During these excavations, we also found shell, animal bone, and other food remains discarded by the prehistoric Native Americans on the east and west flanks of the ridge. On the west flank, small sections of undisturbed shell midden had escaped the relic hunters, and were carefully excavated.

Large Pitted Anvil Stone
Along the central crest of the ridgespur, only stonetools (spearpoints, for example) and flakes from making or resharpening stonetools) were found, along with a massive pitted anvil stone, probably used for cracking nuts or breaking up chert cobbles to make stonetools.


Topsoil stripping to uncover prehistoric features
During the summer of 2000, a trackhoe and hand shovels were used to strip topsoil from the site. This work uncovered pits and fire hearths, built and used by the Panhandle Archaic visitors.

Once discovered, we mapped, photographed, and excavated these features, finding many more artifacts along with mussel shell, animal bone, and carbonized plant remains.

Topsoil stripping after test unit excavations found many large basins or pits along the ridgeflanks,
Half-excavated pit containing shell and artifacts
some extending down to bedrock. The Native Americans may have dug these deep pits to steam shellfish or cook other foods. Other features, simple clusters of rock, were probably hearths where Native Americans kindled fires for warmth.

During excavations, archaeologists discovered six Native American burials at the East Steubenville site. Laid to rest in shallow graves, these were probably burials of family members who died during the Panhandle Archaic encampments. After the first of these burials was discovered, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and WVDOT consulted with West Virginia historic preservation officers, Native American groups, and archeological organizations to ensure appropriate and respectful treatment of these human remains.

Meeting with Native American groups at East Steubenville site, March 2000, to discuss human remains.

Through consultation, FHWA developed a formal agreement that balanced archeological scientific and Native American concerns by requiring osteological study of the skeletal remains followed by reburial. After completing osteological studies, a reburial ceremony was held on October 6, 2001 at the Highland Hills Memorial Gardens, just north of the East Steubenville site. Chief Waterman, member of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, directed a Native American ceremony to reinter the six Panhandle Archaic Native Americans. Bundled in buckskin, the remains were returned to earth by a granite monument commemorating the event.

Reburial ceremony, October 6, 2001: Chief Waterman and assistant (to right) instruct participants in the ritual placing of soil in bundle burial graves.

An open event, the reburial was attended by over 100 Native Americans, archaeologists, and members of the public. For the attendees, this moving ceremony made clear why a commitment to hearing the concerns of all parties in transportation planning projects is not only the law, but the right thing to do.



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