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NEWS | July 28, 2014

Prehistoric Artifacts Open Window to the Past at NRL

By Donna McKinney

Today, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC, houses state-of-the-art laboratories and world-class researchers. But this land was once home to some of the earliest inhabitants living in the region. An archaeological survey conducted at NRL reveals prehistoric and historical artifacts that open a window to early life on the NRL property.

The archaeological survey was conducted in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act to determine if NRL has resources that are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, explains Michele Hepler, NRL's Cultural Resources Manager. Although, based on the location of our facility on the shores of the Potomac, we knew that prehistoric finds were possible, Ms. Hepler says, I was still surprised and delighted to find what we did. I remember the archeologists who were doing the dig getting just as excited as we did.

Versar, Inc. conducted the survey, identifying fives areas on the NRL property that offered the greatest potential for undisturbed archeological deposits due to little or no previous ground disturbance. These five areas included the land surrounding Quarters A and B (Area A), the grassy area at the west end of the mall between Cooley and Oberlin Avenues (Area B), the grassy area at the east end of the mall (Area C), the grass-covered berm north of building 259 (Area D), and the grass-covered media between the northern end of building 240 and a parking lot (Area E).

Before NRL

The survey findings show that prehistoric people lived on what is today NRL property as early as the Archaic Period (ca. 8000 BC to 1100 BC) and the Woodland Period (1100 BC to 1608 AD). In addition to the prehistoric artifacts, archeologists found a large number of historic artifacts, revealing a picture of life on the NRL property in the late 18th and early 19th century, prior to the time the Navy acquired the land, and then in the late 19th and early 20th century when people lived in Quarters A and B. The archaeologists excavated 89 shovel tests and recovered 243 prehistoric and historical artifacts.

The people who populated the region during the Archaic Period likely lived in longhouses, had some agriculture, and made pottery. During the Woodland Period, the people tended to settle near water, in villages. Sometimes they built wooden fences, called palisades, around their villages. They probably had farms, raising crops like corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. They provided food by fishing and hunting deer, smaller game, and water birds. During the winter, they would keep a fire burning in the center of the wigwam for warmth. They made their clothes out of deerskin, and adorned themselves with beads, shells, animal teeth and bones, and copper, along with painted designs. They made their tools from stone, bone, antlers, and teeth. It was during the Woodland Period that people first made bows and arrows. Walking was the primary way to travel, although they also had bark or dugout canoes.

In the period between 600-1000 AD, a network of long distance foot trails connected villages from the East Coast and served as trade routes reaching as far as the Ohio Valley. Wampum (which worked like money) was made of small shells, often strung together like beads. Items exchanged were elk or moose-antler combs, fossil shark's teeth, polished stone gorgets, and stone platform pipes with tulip-shaped bowls. The Spanish and French were aware of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River as early as the 1520s. In June 1608, Captain John Smith and 14 members of the Jamestown colony entered the Potomac River, aboard a two-ton barge, and native people in this area began to have more direct contact with Europeans.


In Area A, the land surrounding Quarters A and B, archaeologists conducted shovel tests that measured 50 cm in diameter and were excavated to depths of 50 to 100 cm. These shovel tests were located at 10-meter intervals. The archaeologists passed the excavated soil through a 6-mm mesh cloth to locate the artifacts. The archaeologists excavated 48 shovel tests, finding 76 prehistoric artifacts and 103 historical artifacts in this area. Their findings included chipped stone tools, ceramic vessel fragments, and fire-cracked rock fragments. The dating on these prehistoric artifacts ranged from Late Archaic Period to Late Woodland Period.

The historical items found in Area A included fragments of 19th-century refined earthenwares, including creamware, pearlware, imitation Jackfield ware, yellowware, and whiteware. Archaeologists also found salt-glazed stoneware jug fragments and lead-glazed coarse earthenware fragments. They found building materials such as brick fragments, cut nails, and window glass fragments. Reminders of the people who once lived there were also found — a porcelain doll's head, a silver spoon fragment, and a ballclay pipe fragment.

In Area B, the land at the west end of the mall, archaeologists excavated 25 shovel tests, finding 39 prehistoric artifacts and 29 historical artifacts. Their findings include ceramic fragments and chipped stone tools from the Late Woodland Period and a large fossilized shark tooth measuring 6-cm long by 4-cm wide. Fossils, such as this shark tooth, are not natural occurrences in the local sediments. The tooth may have originated in Early Pleistocene (between approximately 2.588 and 0.781 million years ago) marine sediments that occur from Norfolk, Virginia, to Florida, or possibly Late Miocene (between approximately 11.608 and 5.332 million years ago) sediments along the Choptank River, Maryland. While the tooth is an unusual find in this area, shark teeth are well documented in other parts of eastern North America as having been used as engraving tools, weapons, and ornaments on prehistoric sites throughout the eastern United States.

NRL Today

In her role as NRL's Cultural Resources Manager, Ms. Hepler is responsible for the evaluation and protection of NRL's historic buildings, archeological sites, and other cultural resources according to Navy policy and the National Historic Preservation Act. One of her primary tasks is to ensure that NRL take into account the historic nature and preservation requirements of our buildings and sites when planning renovations and maintenance and initiate consultation with the DC State Historic Preservation Officer on all our renovation projects. In talking about the significance of the artifact findings, Ms. Hepler says, I think it adds another layer to what we have done historically here at NRL. We've done so much to be proud of here in terms of research, and now we know that the land was also used by others long before us. The artifacts uncovered were cleaned and catalogued by Versar at their laboratory. The collections have been returned to NRL for permanent curation.

NRL Land — A Chronology
  • 1632 — Early records show that Cecil Calvert, second Lord of Baltimore, inherited title to all of Maryland and the southern part of Pennsylvania. Lord Calvert then granted large tracts, with the area now occupied by NRL being part of a tract granted to William Middleton in 1663.
  • 1790 — President George Washington chose the confluence of the Potomac River and the Eastern Branch (now called the Anacostia River) as the site for the city of Washington. Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, suggested that the land south and east of the Eastern Branch be included in the territory to protect the city from attack along the river. In March 1791, Prince George's County Maryland ceded land to the city to create the City and County of Washington.
  • 1795 — NRL's property was part of a tract of approximately 1,200 acres that was conveyed to Thomas Grafton Addison. Addison called the tract Bellevue and built a mansion on high ground northeast of the NRL property.
  • 1827 — Zachariah Berry acquired the land from the Addison estate. The Berrys were wealthy planters from Maryland who rented out Bellevue.
  • 1860s — A shad and herring fishery operated on Bellevue and the Berry-owned property to the south, Blue Plains. Three more homesteads had been added on the Berry properties by 1861, closer to the Potomac River than the original home built by Addison. During the Civil War, Union forces demolished the original Bellevue mansion to construct Fort Greble on five acres of ground that surrounded the house. The fort stood on a ridge near the intersection of present-day Chesapeake and Nichols streets, east of Interstate-295 and the NRL property.
  • 1868 — Thomas W. Berry subdivided Bellevue and directed his heirs to sell the property after his death. So in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the Berry heirs sold parts of Bellevue that have now become the NRL property.
  • 1873 — The Washington and Point Lookout Railroad Company built a rail line through Bellevue. Then the federal government purchased 90 acres of the original Bellevue Estate. Part of the land became the Bellevue Annex to the Naval Gun Factory. Buildings were constructed for the Naval Gun Factory, including a large house, Quarters A, which served as the Commandant's residence. Additional buildings and structures associated with the residence appear on early installation maps and aerial photographs of the Annex property. These structures included a corn crib, stable, workshop or tool shed, garages, hay barracks, and a storehouse. Maps and photographs also show the presence of an orchard, pasture, and poultry yard.
  • 1915 — In a New York Times article, Thomas Edison suggested that the Government should maintain a great research laboratory. With this interview and with the progression of World War I, the idea of a central research facility for the Navy began to take shape. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels took up the cause initiated by Edison and convinced the scientist to head the Naval Consulting Board. The Board's eventual recommendation was for the: establishment of a research and experimental laboratory, whose investment for grounds, buildings, and equipment should total approximately $5,000,000, and which should be located on tidewater of sufficient depth to permit a dreadnought to come to the dock...near, but not in, a large city, so that labor and supplies might be easily obtained.
  • 1917 — Congress approved funds for NRL. The original NRL campus was located between the Bellevue Annex to the north and Blue Plains to the south. Construction contracts for NRL were awarded in November 1920.
  • 1920 — Ground breaking for Building 1 occurred in December.
  • 1923 — The U.S. Naval Experimental and Research Laboratory (now known as NRL) was placed in commission on July 2, at 11:00 a.m.

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