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Nearby archaeological site revealing Monacan history

By Fariss Samarrai

In 1607, Capt. John Smith, the Englishman who helped establish James Fort (the Jamestown colony), was told of a warlike and uncivilized people who lived to the west of the tidewater: the Monacans.

Smith never encountered the Monacan people, but he went on to write about them based upon what his party had been told by the local Powhatan Indians, describing their "very barbarous living for the most part of wild beests and fruits. . ." The Powhatans said that the Monacans were an unsophisticated, rude and warring people who hunted and did not know how to grow corn. They warned Smith not to venture into Monacan territory. He didn't know to question his sources. In 1612, Smith drew a map of the territory, based on what he was told, and showed the location of Monasukapanough, a Monacan village. The likely remains of that village are located on the south fork of the Rivanna River, just north of Charlottesville. Recent testing of artifacts from the site and collection of radiocarbon dates confirm that the village thrived with an active population during the time of Smith's arrival in the New World, and they were more like the Powhatans than different.

A detail from John Smith's map of 1612 shows the Monacan village of Monasukapanough (top right corner). Hantman will conduct a dig this summer at the site, on the south fork of the Rivanna River, near Charlottesville.

"This is the first time we are certain that we are looking at a Monacan village that is contemporary with the early colonial period," says Jeffrey L. Hantman, associate professor of anthropology and director of the archaeology program. "We have found evidence of a sophisticated, well structured society that lived along the Rivanna River at the time Smith was settling the tidewater region. What we now know is not at all consistent with the description that Smith provided of the Monacans, based on what he was told by the Powhatans."

Hantman plans a detailed excavation of the site this summer, which is located on land owned by developer Charles W. Hurt. Hurt recently leased about 20 acres of the property to the Soccer Organization of Charlottesville and Albemarle. Some of the site will be preserved as a permanent archeological site, and the rest will eventually become part of the athletic facilities and soccer fields after Hantman and other archaeologists have conducted their study.

"This is a great example of many people and communities working together to understand a shared history," Hantman says.

Hantman (at right) teaching U.Va. archaeology students at a small Monacan site located near Ivy, Virginia.

Beginning June 12, the archeological site will be open during the day for students and other visitors.

"The public will benefit, as will researchers, historians, and most importantly, the Monacan people, who will gain a greater understanding of their culture during the time of European colonization."

The Monacan people, most of whom live in Amherst County, are presently seeking federal recognition as a native tribe. Hantman says excavation of the site will open a window to a time frame that was lost to history.

"Using the layer cake of archaeology, where history is buried on top of history, we are able to travel beyond the inaccurate written record of the colonial period, to reach the point of truth," Hantman says. "The truth is, the Monacans were a different society, but very much like the Powhatans, and also very powerful."

The Monacans were, in 1607, the Powhatans' enemy, Hantman says, and this may explain why they were portrayed as barbaric. The Powhatans did not want Smith's group to become trading partners with their enemy.

Smith had brought with him many things from Europe, including copper, a metal highly prized by Powhatan chiefs. In return for this metal, Hantman believes, the Smith party was able to develop cordial relations with the Powhatans, and to establish what became the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

"The Europeans' survival depended on the goodwill of the native people," Hantman says. "Jamestown was established because the Powhatans allowed the settlement."

Hantman believes that the Monacans, located in the Piedmont region between the mountains and the tidewater, were in a position of power because they controlled the distribution of copper from deposits in the mountains. The Powhatans were in a weak bargaining position until the Europeans arrived.

"Local rivalries may have been the very reason the English were able to establish a stronghold in the New World," Hantman says. "The results have affected world history. We are now finding clues through archaeology that explain circumstances the colonists never understood."


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