Saving the Danbury Site (33Ot16): Investigation of Woodland to Late Prehistoric Settlement and Mortuary Behavior Along the Lake Erie Shore
Brian G. Redmond
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Recent salvage excavations at the Danbury site (33Ot16) in northcentral Ohio have yielded the remains of a multi-component, prehistoric settlement and mortuary area. Habitation zones are represented by post mold configurations as well as cooking and storage pits which date to Early Woodland, Late Woodland, and Late Prehistoric time periods. The 24 burial features documented to-date include primary and secondary interments which range in age from the Early Woodland to Late Prehistoric periods. Of particular significance is the discovery of one multiple burial that contained two whelk shell (Busycon sp.) pendants. These artifacts document participation in a long-distance exchange/interaction network with the Southeast.
For more than forty years, archaeological study of the pre-contact inhabitants of the southwestern Lake Erie shore has documented the close interdependence between human societies and riparian ecosystems (Fitting 1965; Stothers and Abel 1993; Stothers et al. 1994). This interdependence is most evident for the Late Woodland to Late Prehistoric period (ca. A.D. 500 to 1650) societies which inhabited the western basin of Lake Erie. This relatively shallow basin and its adjoining estuaries were, at the time of contact, fringed by extensive and diverse wetland habitats which supported an abundance of aquatic food resources (Gordon 1969:64-66; Bolsenga and Herdendorf 1993:363-388).At present, more than 100 archaeological sites post-dating the Middle Woodland period have been documented within the western Lake Erie basin area by archaeologists in Ohio, Michigan and southwestern Ontario (Fitting 1965; Stothers et al. 1994; Murphy and Ferris 1990). Archaeological investigation at some of the largest Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 500-1250) components in Maumee Bay, Sandusky Bay and the estuaries of the Maumee and Ottawa Rivers, among others, have documented abundant evidence of warm-season habitations marked by dense concentrations of storage pits and large quantities of fish bone and ceramic debris (Stothers and Abel 2002:74-78).
Common to these sites are small to large cemeteries containing the remains of the Late Woodland inhabitants of these fishing stations. These burial populations include primary and secondary interments of adults and subadults of all age categories. A small percentage of these remains exhibit post-mortem skeletal alterations in the form of drilling, occipital plaque removal, and rearticulation of elements in the grave (Stothers and Bechtel 2000:26-28)..
The Danbury Site
A previously unrecognized example of this site type came suddenly and dramatically to light in July 2003 during the construction of an 81-lot housing development called "The Cove on the Bay." The Danbury site is situated at the southern tip of a small peninsula that extends southward into Sandusky Bay (Figure 1). It was originally identified on the basis of small collections of surface material by amateur archaeologists and was admitted to the Ohio Archaeological Inventory in 1977 as site 33OT16 (Redmond 2005:5-6).
In October 1999, Ohio Valley Archaeological Consultants, Ltd. (OVAC) carried out a Phase I investigation of the property and recommended additional archaeological work prior to construction (Pecora 1999). Unfortunately, the new owners of the site, United States Construction, decided against any further investigation. In July 2003, grading for the development roadway exposed several large concentrations of human remains as well as extensive areas of midden soils and pit features. Shortly after this discovery, a local group of amateur archaeologists were given permission to excavate the archaeological remains in the road right-of-way. News of the discovery quickly spread across northern Ohio and attracted the attention of local media and private citizens, including local Native Americans.
The author was first notified of the discovery in early August 2003 by a news reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and subsequently visited the site. At the author's urging, the landowner agreed to terminate the amateur investigation and hired Ohio Valley Archaeological Consultants to return for two additional weeks of salvage excavation within the exposed site area. The author also contacted the Ohio Historic Preservation Office and was informed that the section of the project area where the archaeological remains had been uncovered was under no form of permit review by any federal or state agency. A permit procedure was underway for the construction of the development marina; however, the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers chose not to include the Danbury site proper within the area of review, despite the fervent urging of the Preservation Office.
The OVAC excavations exposed several dense clusters of basin- to cylinder-shaped pit features and midden deposits which contained abundant faunal and floral remains as well as a diverse assemblage of prehistoric artifacts. A number of primary and secondary human interments were also documented and removed. The ceramic and lithic artifacts represent a number of prehistoric components, most of which fall within the Late Woodland and Late Prehistoric time periods.
In a final attempt to salvage what was left of this very significant archaeological site, the Department of Archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) agreed to return to the Danbury site in summer 2004 and 2005 to carry out further investigations in conjunction with its Archaeological Field School program. As a preliminary step in identifying the overall extent of prehistoric occupations of the site, a bulldozer was utilized to strip the upper 20 to 25 cm of plow zone within the area of Lots 3, 4, and a portion of Lot 6. All possible features were exposed in plan with shovel or trowel and then marked with colored pin flags. Twenty possible burials and two hearth features were identified after initial subsoil exposure.
Formal archaeological investigations began shortly thereafter and involved the hand excavation of 2 x 2 meter test units in development Lots 3 and 4. At the close of the 2005 field season, 356 square meters or 20% of this area was tested (Figure 2). All artifacts and material samples were transported to the Department of Archaeology at CMNH for permanent curation. All human remains were transported to Dr. Paul Sciulli, Dept. of Anthropology, The Ohio State University for inventory and analysis. At the conclusion of each stage of analyses, and according to the landowner's wishes, all human remains and associated burial objects either have been or are to be returned for reburial on-site by the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma.
The largest concentration of pit features was discovered during the backhoe excavation of a utility trench along the western border of the excavation area. This narrow trench exposed 13 large, flat-bottomed pits in profile (Figure 4). The excavation of three of these pits produced modest amounts of faunal remains, FCR, and grit-tempered pottery including several Late Woodland rim sherds of the types Vase Dentate and Vase Corded (Fitting 1965:154-156) which have been dated to between A.D. 750 and 1000 in the region (Stothers and Abel 2002:76-78).
One shallow, basin-shaped pit feature (Fea. 04-05) contained significant amounts of fish and mammal bone, FCR, lithic debitage, and shell-tempered ceramics. Among the pottery assemblage were fragments of at least one Fort Meigs Notched Applique Strip vessel. AMS radiocarbon dating of charred residue from one shell-tempered sherd resulted in a 2 s calibrated date range of A.D. 1420 to 1510 (Beta-203758), and the first documented evidence of a late Sandusky Tradition (Fort Meigs phase) component at the Danbury site.
Evidence of structures has been meager and consists of short lines of post molds in several areas of the site. Two parallel lines of posts, spaced about one meter apart and measuring up to ten meters in length, were identified in the northern block excavation (Figure 2). These lines may mark the location of an oblong structure or a possible section of a stockade defense. Of significance is the fact that one of these lines extended across the fill of at least one burial feature (BF 04-19) which has been dated from the ninth to tenth centuries A.D. (see below). This instance of superpostion suggests that the structure was built during the last few centuries of the site occupation.
One of the two flexed interments was BF 04-08, an adult male of indeterminate age. A single bone collagen date on this individual produced a 2s calibrated date range of 2860 to 2480 B.C. (Beta-208969). This early burial is the first evidence of a significant Late Archaic component at the site.
Burial feature 04-19 contained the semi-articulated remains of two extended, adult males (ages indeterminate) and a disarticulated subadult (age 6.0-7.5 years). One adult appears to have been partially superimposed over the other, and apparently some dislocation of the lower remains of the adults took place when the subadult was added to the grave. Close examination of field photographs revealed the possible re-articulation of the lower legs of one adult which resulted in the reversal of the right femur and tibia. The same may have been done to the bones of the left leg, but this is not as clearly indicated. A sample of human bone collagen from this burial returned a 2 s calibrated date interval of A.D. 870-1010 (Beta-208971), which clearly associates this feature with the Late Woodland (Riviere au Vase phase) occupation of the site.
As noted above, re-articulations of this kind--along with the mixing of elements from several individuals in the same grave--is a recognized characteristic of Late Woodland, Western Basin (Younge) Tradition mortuary treatments (O'Shea 1988 76-78; Stothers and Abel 2002: 76-78). The grouping of disarticulated remains around one or more adult males in small, group interments was most clearly documented in Emerson Greenman's 1937 report on the Younge site in southeastern Michigan (Greenman 1937). Related treatments included the drilling of crania and longbones and the removal of occipital bone plaques.
A distinctly different mortuary complex is illustrated in Burial Feature 04-01. In this feature, four clusters of the fully disarticulated remains of three adults (2 male, 1 female; age range 20-55 years) and ten subadults (age range 0.5 to 15.5 years) were interred in a shallow pit (Figure 5). The remains of the adults were combined with the bones of several of the subadults, and the only deliberate grave inclusion was the unmodified plastron (lower shell) of a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) which was laid at the western edge of the burial pit (Figure 5). Several fragments of a Fort Meigs Notched Applique Strip rimsherd (Figure 6) were found mixed in the pit fill (Figure 5) along with fish and animal bone, FCR, and a chert endscraper. A sample of charred residue from the interior of the rim produced a 2 s calibrated radiocarbon date interval of A.D. 1400-1460 (Beta-204471). A second radiocarbon determination was made on a sample of human bone collagen taken from this feature. The result was a 2 s calibrated interval of A.D. 1520 to 1670 (Beta-208970). The discrepancy between these two radiocarbon date ranges cannot be adequately explained at this time.
Very similar forms of ossuary-type burial treatment have been documented at Late Prehistoric period, Sandusky Tradition village sites located in northwest Ohio. Three such mass graves were uncovered at the Indian Hills site near Toledo in the 1960's (Graves 1985:360-365) and three more are known for the Petersen site located just 18 kilometers to the west of Danbury (Abel 2002:18-20). These communal features appear to reflect one modal burial type for village populations living in the area after A.D. 1400.
Contrasting with the relative order of the ossuary burials is Burial Feature 04-09, within which the remains of two adults (ages and sexes indeterminate) were combined with the disarticulated remains of nine subadults of young age (newborn to 3.5 years). The placement of bone elements appears haphazard, and several subadult crania, as well as articulated hands and feet, appear to have been placed-or discarded-at opposite ends of the grave pit. The fill of this pit contained shell-tempered pottery and one Madison triangular point which indicate that the interments date to the Late Prehistoric period.
The most evident difference between the makeup of the burials within BF 04-01 and BF 04-09 is the under-representation of arm and leg bones in both the adults and subadults of BF 04-09. Conversely, associated adult hand and foot bones, as well as vertebrae, are found in BF 04-09 but are nearly absent in BF 04-01. Similar differential distributions of skeletal elements have been noted at both Petersen and Indian Hills, as well as other sites where ossuary type burials are recorded. The favored explanation for this pattern is that the burial pits containing mostly hands, feet, and vertebrae of several individuals (e.g., BF 04-09) represent disinterred remains not chosen for inclusion in the ossuary burials (Abel 2002:20).
Finally, mention should be made of a very unique burial feature discovered at the Danbury site in 2005. BF 05-02 contained three adult, primary, extended burials (ages and sexes yet to be determined). The first individual to be excavated was found to have one half of a Lightning whelk shell (Busycon sinistrum) inserted in his/her mouth. In addition, this burial was accompanied by more than 50 shell disk beads arranged on the head and torso. The second individual was likewise associated with over 50 shell disk beads and the corresponding half to the first whelk shell fragment. Both shell halves fit back together and appear to have been fashioned as a single artifact, most likely a shell pendant (Figure 7). The third individual in this burial group was found with a large, drilled section of another whelk shell as well as a smaller fragment of the same shell (Figure 8). In addition, more than 60 disk beads and over 40 marginella shell beads were found in association with this individual. Samples of bone from the second and third individuals produced two dates with 2s calibrated date ranges of A.D. 880-1010 (Beta-207989) and A.D. 880-1020 (Beta-207990).
Each of the large whelk shell fragments were drilled and appear to have been used as pendants. In overall form, the halved specimen is reminiscent of whelk shell columnellae pendants depicted on Mississippian engraved shell from Spiro and other sites in the Southeast (Phillips and Brown 1978:Figure 176 and Figure 179). The Danbury site specimen is not engraved; however, the placement of drill holes near the apex and the basal tip of the shell closely match the locations of drill holes on 45.5% of a sample of Busycon sp. artifacts ("cups") recovered from the Craig Mound at Spiro (Phillips and Brown 1978:28 and Figure 10). As noted above, the dates from BF 05-02 place the Danbury site shell artifacts within the tenth century A.D., approximately a century or two earlier than the Spiro shell cups (Phillips and Brown 1978:14) and during a period when such artifacts appear to be rare in the Midwest region.
Elsewhere in northern Ohio, marine shell artifacts, including columella pendants and beads, made from whelk and marginella shell, have been reported from Late Woodland period burials at the Libben site (Prufer and Shane 1976:296), a large cemetery located near the Petersen site. Unfortunately, detailed descriptions of these artifacts and their contexts remain unpublished. Consequently, the shell burial inclusions from the Danbury site provide some of the only document for the involvement of Late Woodland societies of northern Ohio in long distance exchange relationships as far distant as the Gulf Coast.
Based on the results of two years of archaeological investigations at the Danbury site, the following preliminary conclusions can be offered:
- 1. There is strong evidence for significant Late Archaic, Early Woodland, Late Woodland, and Late Prehistoric occupations of the site.
- The Late Woodland period utilization focused on aquatic resource exploitation and caching of food stores in pits.
- The Late Prehistoric period features may reflect the development of semi-permanent settlement (village) occupations combining maize horticulture with aquatic food gathering. This conclusion is supported by the presence of structural features (post mold lines) which postdate at least one Late Woodland period burial feature.
- Burial activity coincided with each major occupation episode (except, perhaps, the Early Woodland component) and transitioned from simple, primary flexed interments to primary extended to secondary (ossuary-type) burials of increasingly more complex mortuary elaboration.
The Department of Archaeology will return to the Danbury site in June 2006 for at least one more season of excavation to continue data recovery efforts at this important archaeological resource.
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