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Faunal Remains from the Nansemond Site, Virginia


The vertebrate faunal remains from the Phase III excavations at 44SK11 and 44SK41 were analyzed. Remains from both sites were recovered from three contexts, the plowzone (Layer A), an undisturbed midden layer (Layer B/ Layer M), and several features. Ceramics and lithic artifacts date both sites to the middle Woodland to Contact periods. At the present time, no radiocarbon dates have bee obtained, although they are expected in the near future.

The majority of the faunal remains were recoverd in the field during screening using 1/4" hardware cloth. Along with these remains, a smaller percentage from 44SK11 were recovered from Layer M, ER29/ 30, and feature 4 through flotation from the heavy fraction of the floated samples. The greatest percentage of mammal bone from both sites were highly fragmented and were not identifiable to more than the level of mammalia.


The faunal material was seperated from the rest of the artifact assemblage and was then subdivided into potentially identifiable (N=474/ 30.2%)and unidentifiable (1094/ 69.8%) fragments. The unidentifiable fragments were divided into medium and small mamml flat and longbone fragments. Any evidence of burning and calcification was also noted. The high percentage of fragments which could not be identified was due to the high degree of fragmentation of most of the mammalian bones due to various taphonomic factors such as plowing, trampling and weathering. The medium sized mammal unidentified fragments probably are from white-tailed deer.

The fragments which could be identified were compared with the author's personal comparative collection, and various zooarchaeological identification guides (Gilbert 1980; Olson 1964; Schmid 1972). Identification was made to the species level when possible. The element present, the portion of the element, the side of the body from which the element came, the degree of epiphesial fusion and any evidence of butchery were all noted on paper catalog forms and are presented in Appendix 2.

The goals of this analysis were to identify the species present at the site; to determine the contribution to the diet each species played; to identify and examine any evidence of butchery and processing of carcasses; and finally, to determine if the site was occupied year round or if occupation was on more of a seasonal basis. As a means of accomplishing these goals, each of the species identified were examined using documentary sources and modern field guides to determine what the habitat of these animals usually was, to what degree the harvesting of these species was seasonally determined, and what the seventeenth century souces state concerning their utilization by the local Native population. Each of these factors are discussed in the following report as each species is discussed. Comparisons between the two sites and between the few other native sites in Virginian riverine locales were made to determine if any trends were present.


While the Native people of Virginia were horticulturalists with corn and other cultivated crops providing the bulk of their diet at particular times of the year, they were still closely tied to the forest, rivers and seas for the bulk of their diet during certain seasons. Mammals, especially white-tailed deer, supplied Natives with the majority of their animal protein in the fall and winter. At the sites in question, this also appears to be true. 44SK11 yielded 699 fragments (63.8%) while at 44SK41, 473 fragments (92%) were recovered.

Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

The common white-tailed deer was one of the primary and most consistently exploited mammals utilized by Native people. Deer grow to an average length of four to six feet long and adults can range in weight from 150 to 300 pounds gross weight. They are versitle animals which adapt and even thrive with the clearing of woods for agricultural use. As a result, while they are usually found in woods, they also live in brushy transitional areas between the woods and fields and often, even today will venture into cultivated fields to graze. This feeding usually occurs between dusk and dawn, but especially during cold and wet weather, they may be active at any time.

Because of the fact that deer are one of the largest game animals on the east coast, they were heavily exploited by the native Virginians and provided the people with many of their needs. The meat was eaten, the skins conditioned using the deer’s brains to make leather, the bones were used to make tools and jewelry, and the tendons or sinew were used for sewing and bow strings. Because of the deer’s prominent place in the Native culture, they are the most comon species found on Native archaeological sites.

Deer do not migrate or hibernate like other species used, so they can be hunted at any time of the year, and unless male cranium are present bearing traces of whether the antler had been shed, or the molars have been thin-sectioned to deternime the season of death based on cementum accumulation, it is problamatical to use deer to determine the seasonality of occupation at the site. Tradtionally though, the prime time for deer hunting is in the fall after the deer have put on the winter store of fat, and before spring when they have shed that fat (Roundtree 1989: 40). Without further means of determining seasonality, the occurrence of deer remains may point to a fall or winter occupation of a site, but as tooth cementum studies have shown they were hunted all year.

Racoon (Procyon lotor)

Racoons are another of the most common mammals exploited by both Natives and colonists alike. Ranging in size from 23 3/4-37 3/8" long and weighing up to 48 pounds, racoons continue to be a popular game animal. Racoons are found in a variety of habitats ranging from forest to field, but they are most common along wooded streams. Here they fed upon crawfish, turtles and turtle eggs.

The name reacoon comes from the Virginian Native word Aroughcun, which was recorded by Smith as being an animal "useth to live on trees as squirrels doe" (Smith 1986: 154-155). They were probably hunted by Native people using either bows and arrows or, more likely, with snares with the flesh being comsumed and the skins being tanned and a number of them being sewn together into capes or mantles.

Racoons are active throughout the year, so the finding of their remains on a site does not yeild any direct indication of the season in which the site was occupied. But like other fur bearing mammals, the best time to hunt them is in the fall into the winter when their coat is full and they are bearing a thick fat layer.

Woodchuck (Marmota monax )

The bane of any farmer or farming people has consistently been the woodchuck, and for the Nansemond, the situation was probably no different. Woodchuck’s grow up to 32" long and may attain a weight of up to 14 pounds. They prefer to live in pastures, meadows and old fields, but will live virtually anywhere there is cleared land. Their prescence at the sites being looked is evident from ER 29 and 30 from 44SK11 which appears to be a woodchuck den excavated under an existing Native home.

Woodchucks are active by day, preferring the early moring and late afternoon as opposed to the heat of mid-day to search for food. Like many aspects of Native culture, nothing was noted by any of the early exploreres concerning the Native use of the woodchuck. They were probably hunted by either bow and arrow or snare and their fur may have been used for pouches or mantles as it was by other native nations.

Woodchucks hibernte from the late fall to the early spring though they may emerge from their dens during warm spells in the dead of winter, only to return to hibernation with the return of the cold weather. As a result, the occurrence of woodchuck remains on a site indicates tht in all likelyhood, the site was occupied during the woodchuck’s active period, spring sumer and early fall.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Red foxes range in size from 35 to 40" for mature adults and may attain a weight of up to 15 pounds. They inhabit various habitats including mixed cultivated and wooded areas and brushlands where they feed upon mice, rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks and crawfish. Like other hunters they are mainly active at night but they may be seen at dawn or dusk before they bed down for the day.

It is not known what position red foxes held with the Native cultural system. Whether they were revered for their hunting skills or merely considered another animal of the woods. Commonly though, carnivors are not usually eaten by people such as the Nansemond if herbivorous species are available. They were probably caught using snares or bows and arrows and may have been hunted primarily for their fur. Red foxes are active throughout the year, but if they were being hunted primarilly for their fur, they were probably hunted in the fall and winter.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)

One of the smaller animals hunted by people, muskrats were also one of more common. The can attain a maximum length of 24" and may weigh up to 4 pounds. Their occurrence on sites situated on the Nansemond River is to be expected as they prefer fresh, brackish or saltwater marshes, ponds, lakes and rivers, and the Nansemond is a prime river for them to inhabit. Like many of the other mammal species present at the sites, muskrats are active primarilly at night, and at dawn and dusk, but they may be seen at any time of the day.

References by early exploreres to muskrats are more common than for some of the other species. As early as 1588, Hariot noted in North Carloina that among those people the "Musquowoc is..... very good meat." (Hariot 1588: 355). Smith noted that muskrats were taken regularly by the boys in the community (Smith in Kingsbury 1906: 35, 3:438). Muskrats are active yearround, bu they may have bee more likely to have been taken in the fall into the winter when their coats are full and they have a good layer of fat.

Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Gray squirrels are hardwood forest dwellers and attain a length of up to 20 inches and a weight of up to 25 ounces. They can be seen and hunted anytime of the day but like most mammals are especially active in the morning and evening.

Squirrels probably did not significantly contribute to the diet of the people due to their small size but they are fairly commonly encountered in archaeological assemblages. They were probably hunted with bows and arrows or by means of rope snares and the fur was used by some Natives for pouches or mantles. They do not hibernate and could have been caught at any time of the year. They may have been mor actively pursued for their coats in the fall and winter and they would acquired a good fat layer by fall.

Eastern/ Common Mole (Scalopus aquaticus)

Unidentified Mouse Species

Both of these species were probably commensal species living around and under the inhabitants of the sites. Due to their very small size they probably were not part of the diet. Moles attain a maximum size of 8" and a maximum weight of 5 ounces, while the mouse, although it can not be identified to species was even smaller. Both occupy open fields, waste areas, woods and loose well drained soils and would have been naturally at home at the sites.


While many of the mammalian species repesented at the site could have bee hunted at any time of the year and do not contribute greatly to our understanding of the season of occupation at the site, the secies of birds do. Birds are more migratory than most mammalian species and as a result are present within the site area only at certain times of the year. Bird remains do not make up as much of the assemblage as the mammals do. At 44SK11 only 10 fragments (1.2%) of bird bone were recovered, while at 44SK41 only 7 fragments (1.5%) were recovered.

Canadian Goose(Branta canadensis)

Canadian geese represent the secnd most common avian species recovered from Native archaeologicl sites after Turkey. This may have to do with the large size of the bones and their ease of identification, but it probably has more to do with a preference for them due to their size. Geese may grow to be up to 26 inches long and may weigh up to xx pounds. They prefer lakes, bays, rivers and marshes but can also be found in fields and cleared areas.

Geese were not unknown to the first european visitors to the area. Hariot (?) wrote that " winter a great store of Swannes & Geese.." (Hariot 1588). While Smith noted that "In winter there are great plenty of ..... Geese... But in somer not any or very few to be seen. " (Smith 1986: 155-156). They were probably hunted with bows and arrows although nets may also have been used.

When looking for a species to help determine the seasonal occupation of a site, Canadian Geese are prime candidates. They return to the Chesepeake in the fall from their northern summer homes after September 20, spend the winter and leave in the early spring (Williams 1993:3). So when goose bones are recovered from archaeological sites, it can be determined with some degree of certainty that the site was occupied betwen the fall and spring.

Pied-Billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

Grebes are water birds which inhabit marshes, ponds and salt water in the winter. They grow up to 15 inches long and may attain a weight of xx pounds. There are no specific early references to grebes but since they are water birds, and it is known that various species of water birds were utilized by Native people, it is not surprising that they should be present in the assemblage. They were probably caught using bows and arrows or they may have been netted.

Because grebes are seasonally migrational they only would have been present at the site from the fall to the spring and would have been gone during the summer.


Turtles occurr on archaeological sites in the Virginia with a great deal of regularity so that most sites which have been occupied during the time of the yer when turtles are active have been found to contain turtle remains. Folowing deer, they are the most commonly occurring wild species on both Native and colonial sites. From 44SK11, 50 fragments (6.2%) of turtle shell were recovered, while from 44SW41, 226 fragments (20.7%) were recovered.

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

Box turtles are the most common species of turtle recovered from Native sites. These turtles grow to 8" and are a terrestrial species which prefers to live in moist forested areas, but also wet meadows, pastures and floodplains. They are usually seen early in the day or after rains and during the hot summers, will retire to swampy areas to remain cool.

They were easily caught by Native people probably by just picking them up by hand after searching them out. They are aslo a very seasonal species hibernating from around October until the late spring.

Red-Bellied Turtle (Chrysemys rubriventris)

Red- bellied turtles grow to 15 inches long and are one of the largest species of land turtles found in Virginia. They inhabit deep ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and brackish marshes and the Nansemond River would be a perfect habitat for them. They may have been caught with dip nets or by hand from a boat.

They are active from about April to October when they go into hibernation.

Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)

Mud turtles are relatively small turtles attaining a maximum length of approximtely 5 inches. They will live in fresh or brackish water but they prefer shallow soft-botomed, slow moving waterwhere they will often occupy muskrat lodges. They were probably caught with dip nets along the edges of the river or on the muskrat lodges.

Mud turtles are active from April to October, after which they hibernate for the winter.


For a people who spend at least part of their year on the coast, fish always make up a reasonably high percentage of their diet at certain times of the year and this was probably also true for the Nansemond. It is known that native people in the Chesepeake were well equipped for harvesting the resources of the sea. De Bry, in 1588, illustrated three native men and a woman fishing from a log canoe with numerous men in the background spearing fish and netting them in weirs. The caption on this drawing states "They have likewise a notable way to catch fish in their Rivers...they faste unto their Reedes or longe Rodds, the hollow tayle of a certaine fishe like to a sea crabb in steede of a pointe, where with by nighte or day they stricke fishes....They also make weares...which they soe plant within a nother .... Dowbtles yt is a pleasant sighte to see the people , somtymes wadinge, and somtymes sailinge in those Rivers, which are shallow and not deepe...." (de Bry 1588:56). This illustration also shows various fish which they are known to catch. These include rays or skates, catfish, carp, eels, herring or perch, gar, hammerhead shark and striped bass.

It does come as somewhat of a surprise then that more fish bone was not recovered from the excavations at these sites. 44SK11 yielded only 43 fragments (5.3%), while 44SK41 yielded even less, 7 fragments (.6%). This may be the result of poor preservation or differential deposition due to cultural or seasonal factors. The size of the individuals present in the collection indicates that a weir or net was probably used to catch them. They all appear to be relatively small, too small for a hook or spear.

The occurrence of fish at a site affords the opportunity to recover scales from features. These scales grow in much the same way that shellfish or trees do, laying down layers, or annuli, as they grow. The annuli are deposited as wide bands in the warm weather, and narrow dands in the cold. By looking at the scales under magnification, the approximate time of the year when the fish was caught can be ascertained (Casteel 1974). The procedure outlined by Casteel was used for 44SK11 to determine the season of capture for one species, white perch.

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Sphyrna lewini)

One of the most surprising and exciting species which was identified was the possible Hammerhead shark. While it is not surprising to find shark vertebrae and teeth on archaeological sites, it is surprising to find them so far up a river as the sites are situated. Hammerhead sharks grow to approximately 13’9" and are most commonly found in the ocean near the surface. But as the de Bry paintings show, hammerhead sharks could be found in rivers. Today, hamerhead sharks are known to enter into esturaies if the salinity is high enough.

De bry also shows a Native man carrying a basket on his back to a cooking hurdle, within which is a small hammerhead shark (de Bry 1588: 59). Hammerhead sharks were probably speared after they had been trapped in a weir. Sharks, no matter which species, would be present in the Chesepeake in the warmer months of the year.

Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus)

Sturgeon, like deer and Box turtle, is a species which is commonly found on coastal Virginia sites. This is probably due to the fact that they are a large species which yields a sizable percentage of usable meat. The average individual can attain a length of over 10 feet and weigh 150 pounds, 65 of which is usable meat making it an attractive quarry (Barber 1994). The scutes, or bony plates on their backs and heads, are highly identifiable archaologically and are often found.

The only documented technique for catching sturgeon by southeastern people states that they were caught by lines lassoed around their tails "the fisherman then played his fish (while swimming, if the fish pulled him off the bank) until he could land it" (Rountree 1989:34). An alternate method for catching them was practiced in New England. Here the men would venture out into a river at night in a canoe with a birch bark torch. The torch was lit and waved over the water attracting the sturgeon. They would then roll over on their backs giving the fisherman the opportunity to spear them in their soft under belly (Williams 1643: 180). While this method is not recorded in Virginia, it is noted that later in the century Natives did fish with fire, so this may have been a practice used earlier as well (Rountree 1989:34).

Strugeons are an anadramous species, spawning in fresh or slightly brackish water. The juveniles spend their first five years in the rivers before eventually moving out to the ocean (Rountree 1989:28). This pattern results in their being present in the rivers for only certain months of the year. This was noted as early as 1588 when Harriot noted "For foure monethes of the yeere. February, March, Aprill and May, there areplentie of Sturgeons." (sic) (Harriot 1588:20). The prescence of sturgeon remains in an archaeological assemblage, unless they are from small individuals, can be used to determine the seasonality of occuption.

White Perch (Morone americana)

White perch are a relatively small species attaining an average length of up to 10 inches and an average weight of one pound. They spawn in April in brackish or salt water, and then migrate into fresh water in spring. The young stay up river in the summer while the adults forage around oyster beds further down the river. As the fall approaches and the water cools, most head out to the ocean (Williams 1993:174).

White perch were probably caught in weirs or by means of nets due to their small size. The recovery of their remains on a site indicates that the site was occupied during the spring to fall before they return to the ocean.

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Catfish are spring spawners who move upstream in the spring and downstream in the fall, but essentially they are present year round. Catfish could have been caught by hook and line or netted after being trapped in a weir. De Bry illustrates catfish in his scene showing the three men and a woman fishing from a boat and is also illustrated as one of the fish being carried in a pack basket to a hurdle to be roasted (de Bry 1588:56, 59).

Longnose Gar (Lepisosteous osseus)

Longnose gars prefer quiet, warm waters in large, slow moving streams and rivers and are available year round. De Bry illustartes one in his painting of "The Browllinge of their fishe over the flame" (sic) in a basket on the back of a Native man (De Bry 1588:59). Gar were probably caught by spear in weirs.

Silvery Minnow (Hybognathus nuchlis)

Silvery minnows are a common forage fish in creeks and rivers and the remains from the site were probably brought to the site in the stomach of one of the other fish, such as the catfish or gar. As a result, as far as is known, they did not contribute to the diet.

Results of Analysis 44SK11

As can be seen in tables 1 and 2, the bulk of the faunal material from 44SK11 was recovered from Layer A (N=303) and from the subsurface features (N=233). Unfortunately, layer A has been disturbed by plowing and any faunal material recovered may represent animals which have been incorporated into the archaeological record through natural means. The material from Layer M and the features on the other hand, while not being as numerous as those from Layer A, have more to offer us in terms of information concerning foodways in the Late Woodland Period.

Layer A

Layer A is composed of agriculturally plowed midden soil extending vertically to approximately 1'. Because the faunal material recovered from this layer is in a mixed context, it can not be given the same degree of reliability concerning the utilization of animals by the Nansemond during the Late Woodland to Early Contact Periods as Layer M or the fauna recovered from the features do. I do not feel though that the fauna recovered should be completely dismissed as worthless. The prescence of burned bone (N=89) in this layer does point to a cultural origin for part if not all of the material recovered. Studies in plowzone archaeology have shown that the even agriculturally disturbed soils should not be considered devoid of information. Reinhart, in the 1970s, stressed the need for a concerted effort to be made to investigate plowed sites, as these make up a large percentage of the sites investigated (Reinhart 1978:81). For these reasons, the faunal material from Layer A will be examined with as much care as was given to more intact features.

Deer dominates the faunal assemblage, with turtle being the second most common fauna recovered. This follows the general trend seen throughout Native occupation in the east (Barber 1978; Rountree 1989). The deer all appear to be adults, with all epiphysis of the vertebra and the proximal epiphysis of the femur being fused. The small number of avian and icthyian remains recovered from the plowzone may be the result of the plowing and subsequent weathering of these more fragile faunal remains.

The only small mammal remain recovered was one fragment of a racoon mandible. The only fish remains recovered was one vertebral centrum from what has been tentatively identified as a bullhead hammerhead shark. Sharks belong to the cartligenous fish family which includes skates and rays. These fish are some of the most primitive and do not posess hard skeletons. Their skelatal structure is chiefly made up of cartilage, and except for the teeth, dorsal spines, scales and calcified vertebral centrum, they are difficult to detect archaeologically. This centrum is from the anterior portion of the spinal column, and unfortunately this is the least reliable portion to use to identify a species (Kozuch 1989: 148). But, using the criteria put for by Kozuch and Fritzgerald, hammerhead shark is the most likely identiication for this centrum.

The recovery of shark as well as pied-billed grebe and box turtle all point to a spring to fall occupation of the site, when these species are present and active. The prescence of the racoon and deer may point to a fall into winter occupation, if these species were exploited at the prime season of the year.

Layer M

Layer M represented intact midden soil which has been dated by the artifacts to the Late Woodland period. This layer covered the entire project area and was approximately 8 inches in depth. The fauna from this layer was similar to that from Layer A except that more turtle and fish remains being found. The only deer element recovered from Layer M which could be used for aging was one distal end of a metacarpal. The lack of epiphyseal fusion in this bone indicated that this individual was probably under 2 years of age. The only small mammal remains recovered was one molar from a red fox, and one gray squirrel astragelous.


ER 29/30

This feature has been identified as a woodchuck hole which was excavated beneath an existing house. This hole eventually collapsed and was subsuquently filled in with hearth debris and faunal remains. In terms of faunal material recovered, this feature was the richest and most diversified investigated.


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