Madeline Gunter and Jessica Bittner were using tablespoons to work around some rocks that were just beginning to peek through the troweled-flat, muddy-looking surface of their working unit. They weren't just random stones.
"It's a hearth feature," said Gunter, a Ph.D. student in William & Mary's Department of Anthropology. "We're making sure to collect all these little charcoal flecks that are concentrated here in the center. That's going to help us date this feature." Rain, even a very moderate shower, would wash away those little charcoal flecks, along with any microscopic evidence of foodstuffs mixed in among them. As a precaution, Gunter and Bittner work with tarps literally at their elbows, the unsettled weather adding a bit of extra urgency to the excavation.
The hearth feature was one of the top finds of the summer archaeological field school conducted by Professor of Anthropology Martin Gallivan at Kiskiack, the site of an Indian town that was once part of the chiefdom of Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas.
It's possible that John Smith or Pocahontas ate a meal cooked on the very same hearth that Gunter and Bittner were excavating, but it would be fanciful to say so. Gallivan says that the odds of both time and place are against such an occurrence. Kiskiack may have been occupied for centuries at the time that Smith and the other Jamestown colonists arrived in 1607. In addition, the site extends for hundreds of yards along a bluff overlooking the York River, on the grounds of what now is Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, and no doubt the ground underneath contains many, many hearth features of various vintages.
The archaeologists hope that laboratory examination of the hearth area will not only help to date the feature, but also yield up clues about what was eaten there at the time. The hearthstones are lumps of quartzite, brought down the York River from Virginia's mountains by long years of weathering and flooding. Some of the hearthstones look like brick fragments, but they're not.
"You see these red stones, here?" Gunter asked. "That's one of the indications that it's a hearth feature, because when these rocks are exposed to a certain temperature, they turn this red color."
Mcclain, Joseph. 2015. “Archaeologists extract clues from Kiskiack's pre-colonial past”. Phys.org. Posted: July 31, 2015. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2015-07-archaeologists-clues-kiskiack-pre-colonial.html