It was the best of times. Wahunsenacawh, also known as Chief Powhatan, had settled into a new capital town on a bay off what is now the York River.
The site, known as Werowocomoco, was not a newly created community, but it was a strategic location from which to administer a power base. Powhatan was the mamanatowick, the "great king" of the Virginia Tidewater, ruling an area ranging from just south of the James River north to the Potomac and from the fall line near today's I-95 eastward to include the Eastern Shore. Martin Gallivan, associate professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary, points to Purton Bay, site of Werowocomoco, on a large map covering one wall of the facilities of the Werowocomoco Research Group, located in Washington Hall.
"The rivers were the interstate highways of the time," Gallivan said. "Powhatan moved his home from his birthplace on the James River to the York River. His chiefdom ranged over the coastal plain of Virginia. If you draw a map of these river highways, you see the York is fairly central and Purton Bay, where Werowocomoco is located, is fairly central on the York. So, my initial interpretation is that Wero is geographically central to this world of Algonquin-speaking Indians on the Coastal Plain."
Canoes brought a stream of tribute to the great king from his subject people, who were collectively known as Powhatans. Corn and other food, shell beads, copper items and deer skins came to the mamanatowick at his capital city through a stable system of governance administered through sub-chiefs, or weroances, among thirty-odd districts comprising dozens of villages and about 15,000 people.
Meanwhile, down on the James River, times weren't so good. In late 1607, life in Jamestown (also known as James Cittie), the first tentative toehold of what was to become the first permanent English colony in the New World, was so precarious that 400 years later tourists were attracted to the interpretive exhibits of Jamestown by an advertising campaign asking, "Could you have survived?" Odds aren't good, considering that nearly half of the original set of colonists were dead by the end of 1607.
While preparations are being finalized for the events of 2007, the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony, Werowocomoco is emerging into daylight, as archaeological excavations of the site by the Werowocomoco Research Group uncover evidence of life in the onetime capital of the region. Abandoned in 1609 by Powhatan and all but forgotten for centuries, "Wero" is in for its share of the spotlight, as well. A NOVA episode on Werowocomoco is in the works; an advance crew from WGBH-TV has been meeting with Gallivan and others involved, including Bob and Lynn Ripley, whose Gloucester County property includes the Wero archaeological site. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources—a part of the project through the work of Randy Turner, director of its Tidewater Regional Preservation Office—placed Werowocomoco on the Virginia Landmarks Register. In March, Wero also was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A place of power
It's impossible to talk about the early days of Jamestown without mentioning Werowocomoco. Much of the story of the colony either happened at Werowocomoco itself or was influenced by decisions that were made there. The legendary, albeit historically controversial, intervention by Pocahontas in the execution of John Smith happened at Werowocomoco. Smith and Christopher Newport met several times with Powhatan, each time at Werowocomoco. All the decisive action occurred at Wero because it was the seat of power. In fact, the standing description of Powhatan's capital at the Werowocomoco Research Group is "a place of power." Think of it this way: The White House is in Washington, the Holy See is at the Vatican and Fort Knox is in Kentucky. In 1607, the political, religious and economic authority of the Chesapeake region all rested in a single place: Werowocomoco.
"When Jamestown was settled in 1607, Wahunsenacawh—Powhatan—is the regional power," Gallivan said. "In the early days of the colony, when the colony struggled to feed itself and to establish its place in the region, Powhatan controlled affairs across the Chesapeake region. It obviously changed in the early 17th Century, but in the early days, it was Powhatan who decided when and how much to feed the English colonists and whether or not they would be allowed to continue to live in the area."
It was inevitable that John Smith would meet the great king. The meeting didn't take long to come about. In December, 1607, just a few months after the colony's founding, Smith was carrying out one of the colony's missions by exploring the Chickahominy River as a possible route to the Pacific Ocean. He had gotten separated from his men and was found—stuck in the mud—by a force led by Opechancanough, brother of Powhatan and a Pamunkey weroance in his own right.
Opechancanough took Smith on a circuitous route through the region, ending up at Werowocomoco. Smith wrote up accounts of his captivity and subsequent encounters with the natives. The parts of the memoirs centering on Smith and Pocahontas have served as the basis for movies, popular literature and countless thousands of grade-school pageants. Taken as a whole, accounts from Smith and other Jamestown colonists are a primary historical record of the people of Powhatan. It's only in the 21st Century that Werowocomoco began to tell its own long, mysterious and distinguished tale, a story that predates Powhatan and is beginning to offer glimpses of a place that has held significance for centuries.
Wero occupies a peculiar place among ancient native town sites: we've known about it long before it was rediscovered. And, as Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, a cultural anthropologist at William & Mary and a specialist in Native American communities points out, "We actually have the name for the place in the Powhatan language."
"That's right," Gallivan seconded. "The folks that lived at Cahokia didn't call it Cahokia. The folks that lived at Pueblo Bonita in Chaco Canyon didn't speak Spanish."
Getting past Pocahontas
Werowocomoco began to come out of hiding in 2001. Lynn Ripley had collected an impressive amount of artifacts on her farm, which led to a survey of the property by archaeologists from the Fairfield Foundation. As the Purton Bay site became an increasingly likely candidate for the location of the legendary capital city of the mamanatowick, Gallivan consulted Moretti-Langholtz on how to involve the native community, many of whom are descendants of the Powhatans.
"We decided that instead of having the native community wake up to a newspaper story that said Dr. Gallivan is going to be working on this site that we think is Werowocomoco, let's bring them in before we begin work," Moretti-Langholtz said.
Representatives of the eight state-recognized tribes were invited to a meeting at William & Mary during which Gallivan and others explained their intentions and asked for reactions. As a follow-up, Moretti-Langholtz arranged with Bob and Lynn Ripley for the tribal representatives to visit the site in February, 2003.
"We learned a lot that day, as archaeologists, about what the Powhatans were intrigued by, what they were interested in, what they wanted to know. There were some directions they pushed us in that were different from where we might have headed on our own," Gallivan said. "For example, they expressed an interest in the long-term history of place, the history of that location. Not just the events of 1607, 1608 and 1609 involving personalities such as Pocahontas and John Smith—they're intrigued by that history, as are we all. But they are just as interested in the decades and centuries leading up to 1607—what happened in the years prior to 1607 to make this place Werowocomoco, to make it the place of the king, the place of the chief.
"I took that to heart," Gallivan said. "That was not at the top of our list going into that meeting, but it was at the top of our list coming out. It shaped the direction of our research in a positive way."
Work began in earnest in June, 2003, as a project of the College's Archaeological Field School, consisting largely of students from the Archaeological Field Methods class. Excavations soon revealed that Werowocomoco was an old place. In comparison with Jamestown and other sites in the history-laden Tidewater, Werowocomoco, Moretti-Langholtz notes, is "fully a native story." If the history of the town were compressed into a 24-hour day, Pocahontas would come along in the final reverberations of the last stroke of the clock sounding midnight.
"The location of Werowocomoco has been occupied for several millennia," Gallivan said, "but there's an abrupt change around A.D. 1200 where we start to see evidence of a large, fairly permanent community in the location. We see evidence of houses, pits, pottery, stone tools and these sorts of things in fairly large numbers starting around A.D. 1200."
These relics of everyday life came from stratified deposits near the river, and are typical, Gallivan says, of other native communities of the time—"a fairly large community of corn, beans and squash farmers." The researchers have unearthed similar evidence of a residential community up to about 1,000 feet back from the riverbank, where the findings stop and an empty space begins. Where the empty space ends, things get very interesting.
The puzzle of the Pastures
"Behind that empty space, we found an area that we refer to as the Pastures," Gallivan said. "It is demarcated by a set of ditch features, earthworks. We haven't exposed them in their entirety, but they seem to form a kind of enclosure a thousand feet back from the riverfront—away from the residential community."
There are two parallel earthworks, each about two and a half feet wide and two feet deep. The field team has exposed over 600 feet of the front side and they're still going. Gallivan said that ditchworks are not uncommon in native communities in Tidewater. In some places the ditches surrounded palisades, other times not, but the Werowocomoco ditches are unusual.
"Something like this that's 600 feet on one side is unheard of," he said. "It's gigantic. It's unique in the area. It's incredibly large—and also separated from the core of the community."
Work in the Pastures has also uncovered the remains of post-hole architecture, with at least one hole that dates from 1600. Even the pottery found in the Pastures is different from the riverfront residential area. There is pottery from the Potomac River, from the James River—pottery from all over the coastal region, a strong indication, Gallivan says, that goods were being moved into the site. There is also copper, a much rarer find down near the river.
"We found 20 pieces of copper that have been chemically matched with Jamestown copper," Gallivan said. "Eighteen of the pieces come from the Pasture. Two come from the riverfront. So there's a pretty big imbalance there. Copper is, of course, a key trade item between the Jamestown colonists and the Indians. Copper has enormous significance for the Powhatans. It's a high-status item. Those who wear it and those who control it have elite status in the Powhatan world."
Gallivan refers to the documentary accounts of John Smith and to the practices of other native cultures to make a preliminary interpretation of the findings in the Pastures. There were the narratives of meetings with Powhatan, of course, and Smith also had described the physical layout of Oropacks, the village near the Chickahominy headwaters where Powhatan made his home after abandoning Wero.
Smith's description of Werowocomoco has Powhatan's house separated from the rest of the community and was situated "thirty score" from the riverfront. "A score is twenty," Gallivan said. "Twenty what? Is he referring to paces? To feet? It's unclear in the text, but that reference to the layout of the community emphasizes that Powhatan's house was separated from the rest of the community and we're seeing something in the archaeological record that parallels that."
Smith was a little more detailed in his description of Oropacks, placing Powhatan's house in the woods, a mile from the rest of the community. In this house Powhatan kept his copper, shell beads and deer skins that he was given as tribute.
"It was a place that could be described as a storehouse, a sacred space, a treasury—all those words could apply to that. It was a place where only Powhatan and his priests could attend to," Gallivan said.
Were the Pastures the site of another, maybe larger, storehouse-treasury-sacred space? For Martin Gallivan—who is, after all, a scientist—there's not enough evidence to say definitively.
"We've got different kinds of pottery, different kinds of space, and documentary references that those kind of spaces were associated with leaders and with sacred activity," he said. "So it's kind of a circumstantial case."
There is a certain amount of evidence pointing to Werowocomoco's role in the spiritual life of the Powhatans, as well. Smith underwent an examination ceremony conducted by a Powhatan priest, whom he described as a "great, grim fellow," before being allowed into the presence of the great king. Historical documents also tell of the huskanaw, a male rite of passage ceremony among the Powhatans for which members of many communities would travel to the chief's house. A similar practice exists among another Algonquin group.
"The Delaware Indians had a Big House ceremony annually in the chief's village in which members of a number of different communities would get together," Gallivan said. "They would feast, they would dance, they would pray and hold a series of rites over a series of days in this special location. The archaeology we're seeing at Werowocomoco matches those sorts of activities."
As an archaeological site, Werowocomoco is not only huge, but also disbursed, with dwelling sites spread across 50 acres. Gallivan and Moretti-Langholtz concur that excavation and cataloging of evidence still buried in the riverfront community and the Pastures represent a lifetime of archaeological work.
"We really have a tremendous opportunity here," Gallivan said. "The site is intact. It is in great shape archaeologically. It is owned by one family, Bob and Lynn Ripley, who have been very amenable to the archaeological research. They've opened their door to the Virginia Indian community. They've been really fantastic."
As the site is worked, conversations turn to the future of Werowocomoco, when the focus shifts from excavation to interpretation of the site and what it has revealed.
"It's not yet clear what the site and its post-excavation profile could be in terms of presenting the complexity of native culture," Moretti-Langholtz said. "I don't know if we're close to the day where we can see Werowocomoco as an interpretive site rather than an archaeological site, but I would love to see that happen. But that can't happen without the archaeological work and it can't happen without our native partners. I think that day will come and the landowners seem to know that that is a key future component of the site."