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Fuerst discusses Native Americans of Blennerhassett Island

Archaeologist David Fuerst spoke Sunday during the Winter Lecture Series at the Blennerhassett Museum about a dig he was involved with on Blennerhassett Island in the late 1970s. (Photo by Brett Dunlap)

PARKERSBURG — The people who lived on Blennerhassett Island, long before the Blennerhassetts arrived there, were simple farmers, said an archeologist who was part of an excavation on the island in the late 1970s.

David Fuerst was the featured speaker at the third installment of the 2020 Winter Lecture Series held at the Blennerhassett Museum on Sunday. He spoke about Indian village sites on Blennerhassett Island.

In June 1979, Fuerst was a 25-year-old graduate from the University of Toledo and working at the Sunrise Museum in Charleston when he was hired to come to the island to participate in a dig, but wasn’t given a lot of instruction on how to conduct the dig or a lot of equipment. He was basically told to dig with a shovel.

During his time there they had uncovered remains of a village, including homes, a central gathering place for the village, pottery, arrowheads, tools and more. They even found human remains of the dead the villagers buried.

The village was located towards the back end of the island on the side facing West Virginia.

There was no indication of what the people might have called themselves, but Fuerst said they were designated as “The Fort Ancient Indian Culture,” a name given to people throughout this region in West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and on to where St. Louis, Mo., now sits.

They lived from the 1180s to around the 1650s.

“There were different regions and the people had their own traditions,” he said. “They were village farmers growing corn, beets and squash.”

The village excavated on the island was believed to date around to the 1200s. It was set up in a circular shape with an opening on the end of the village facing the river.

They did diggings and were able to read the soil layers to tell the people who lived there grew crops on that land. They found remains of a burned dwelling and by carbon dating the ashes, they believed the building was there around the 1200s.

They also found remains of pottery. People used mussel shells in creating their pottery. The shells made the pottery stronger so it could be used longer.

Fuerst said traditionally they could estimate how many people might have lived in a village by the number of dwellings they had as well has how many gravesites. The numbers they had were not very conclusive, but he believes there were probably at least 100 people in the village, at the one time.

“That is just my speculation,” he said.

He believes the village probably stayed in that location for over 50 years or so before the people moved on to another location.

“For people to stay in a village like that where people died over time and they got buried, it would have to have had some longevity to it,” Fuerst said.

He said they discovered seven or eight gravesites at the time.

At the time, they dug up the remains. They found the bodies placed in the graves in a sitting position, called “flexed burials” which was common.

Now Fuerst wouldn’t touch them, he said of people’s beliefs in how the dead should be treated. There are also laws now designed to prevent it.

“This part should never have been done,” he said. “None of these burials should have been excavated out.”

Modern technologies, such as ground penetrating radar and magnetometry have eliminated the need for such digs.

“Unless you have to dig, you shouldn’t really have to dig at all,” Fuerst said. “Preservation is more important.”

If there was something that would required to be dug up, they could concentrate on a small section of ground and not disturb a larger area, he said.

Fuerst said he hopes one day someone will go over the site again with these new technologies to see what they can discover.

Jerry Anderson, chairman of the Blennerhassett Historical Foundation, said plans are in the works to do that at some point with people from Ohio State University.

The final entry in the 2020 Winter Lecture Series will be Ilene Evans as Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous leaders of the Underground Railroad which helped many people escape from slavery. The presentation will be 2 p.m. Feb. 23 at the museum.

Brett Dunlap can be reached at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com

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