Archaeology at the Mill Progress Report

Earlier this year, lead archaeologist, Dr. Mike Johnson, wrote up a progress report of the archaeological work that has been done at the Mill to date.  We’re excited to present his “Thoroughfare Gap Archaeology News” below.  Expect to see parts 2 and 3 of the September TGA news posted here in the near future.  


Hopefully, this will be the first of many updates on the progress of archeological investigations in Thoroughfare Gap by the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia, working in concert with Turn the Mill Around Foundation.  Prior to the current effort, archeological investigations in the gap have been sporadic with the current work being the first comprehensive investigations of any part of the gap area.

It began several years ago under the oversight and direction of Kay McCarrron, who was the previous Executive Director for Turn the Mill Around Campaign.  It continues under the oversight of Frances Allshouse and direction of Mike Johnson, Ph.D.  Its focus was on identifying potential archeological features and sites that may be impacted by a proposed trail system (Figures 1 and 2) to the east of the Chapman-Beverly Mill.  That was mainly so the significant features could be properly conserved.  Its main objective was to identify historic features that logically would have been associated with the mill and its owners.

figure-1Figure 1.  Preliminary master plan for development of the mill property.


firgure-2Figure 2.  Transect interval sample locations.


However, McCarron took the opportunity to expand the testing to cover areas of potential research interest beyond mere development related impact areas.

Finding historic, mill related features was no surprise.  The big surprise was the discovery of unusual prehistoric stone artifacts.  Prehistoric artifacts could be expected.  However, many of the artifacts were made of non-local stone, indicating that they were either brought or traded over many miles by people whose only means of transportation was on foot.  That discovery brought former Fairfax County Senior Archeologist, Mike Johnson into the project.  He was involved in research on water gaps, like Thoroughfare Gap, as focal points for very early (20,000-10,000 B.P.) prehistoric trade centers, large interaction camps and transportation bottlenecks.

Over time he took on more and more of the field oversight.  His participation has involved supervising recovery of both the mill related historic and gap related prehistoric archeological information.  The initial field strategy devised by McCarron and Becky Garber was to test the trail impact areas, using controlled shovel test pits spaced at tight intervals across the landscape to the east of the mill.

This strategy was consistent with that used by Johnson in Fairfax County and was ideal for the recovery of the highest quality historic and prehistoric data.  The method is similar to a “Phase I survey,” designed in government archeology to locate sites in areas that have not been previously surveyed.  However, Chapman’s Mill and its complex of supporting features was a recorded site.  Its state registry number is 44FQ271, which means it is the 271st archeological site recorded in Fauquier County (FQ) Virginia (44).

Since the tight interval transect interval sample was being employed on a known site it was considered part of the next phase, Phase II, which is the first part of an assessment of a site’s significance.  Johnson calls this a Phase IIA.

The fieldwork was completed several years ago, with the recovery of enormous quantities of historic and a lesser amount of prehistoric artifacts.  Fieldwork was suspended for more than a year and a half to permit laboratory processing and cataloguing artifacts.  This was necessary prior to determining where to do more intensive test excavations, designed to assess the significance of potential features.

Johnson agreed to assist with the understanding that his contribution would be consistent with his research interest in prehistoric use of water gaps. He did not feel competent enough to do justice to a complex industrial site like Chapman’s Mill.  Although Johnson has basic competence in historical archeology, his advice is to get a qualified industrial archeologist with specific skill and experience in dealing with mill complexes.

The results of that lab work indicated that several areas held a high potential for prehistoric activity areas consistent with Johnson’s research interest.  The distributions of two of the more important exotic stone artifacts (jasper and meta-volcanic) are shown in Figures 3 and 4.  Both stone types are not common on most sites east of the Blue Ridge.  Jasper sources have been identified south of Front Royal, at Point of Rocks on the Potomac and between Fredericksburg and Culpeper.  Meta-volcanic sources have yet to be found north of the James River.


figure-3Figure 3.  Phase IIA jasper distribution.


figure-4Figure 4.  Meta-volcanic distribution.


One of the largest and most intense jasper artifact areas was found to be co-located with the most intense and largest meta-volcanic area as shown in Figures 3 and 4.  Interestingly, this area also is where the Phase IIA testing identified a large stone foundation.  It is also the highest landform, relative to Broad Run, located east of the immediate mill area and south of the railroad tracks.  The higher elevation and distance from Broad Run suggests that it would possibly contain the earliest prehistoric camps.  Relative safety from flooding also is likely the same reason it was used for an historic house.

Part 2 of this article coming soon!

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