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Archeological History of Selden Island

Richard Slattery

Note from the Author: I decided to write this history as I remember it in hopes that it might fill in a gap or two in archeological ventures when farming was king and early Selden Island archeological exploits were welcome as long as you filled in the holes when you finished.

While conducting our explorations along the Potomac in 1938, Hugh Stabler and I were not likely to pass by the only Island that had a bridge across the Potomac and connecting the island to the Virginia shore. Selden Island is one of the largest of the long chain of islands that extends from Harpers Ferry to less than a mile above Seneca. The island itself is nearly 3 miles long, providing just too much land to not pay to build a bridge to get farm machinery across to work. So at an earlier date a small bridge was built, followed by a single stone house which has withstood many floods over the years.

Photo showing sites examined on Selden Island

When Hugh and I reached the other side of the bridge we couldn't miss noticing a large circle of darker soil in an otherwise yellowish-brown background. From experience this was a sure sign of a long period of habitation. Since the darkened circle did not encompass the modern house it must be of an earlier origin. We quickened our pace and soon were within the darkened area and immediately began picking up pottery sherds, worked stone and other artifacts common to Indian village sites.This was the first site we discovered on the island and so became Site # 1 on the photo above.

One variation from the usual was that the tempering material in the pottery sherds was not of the uniform material as is the case on most sites. For example, on one site the potters may choose to temper her pottery mix with crushed granite, if so, all of the pottery in that village and even in that culture will follow that custom. If the custom is to use crushed shells for tempering material then crushed granite is not used. This is so rigid that archeologists use the pottery tempering material as one of the factors in culture determination. One example of this is the shell tempered pottery at the Hughes Site, and just a short distance down stream at the Winslow Site the tempering material was crushed granite or crushed quartz and shell wasn't used.

I was so impressed with the site that I told Dr. Wedel about it and invited him to come with us to see the site himself. He willingly came on the next trip. The land was owned at that time(1938) by a Mr. Walker who gave us permission to dig anywhere so we chose a spot close to the Maryland side of the Island. Almost immediately we uncovered a row of 35 arching post moulds. There was something planted in the field but we thought it was just groundcover and after all Mr. Walker said we could "dig anywhere." We thought we were Ok. Well we had unearthed those 35 postholes as part of a large, defensive enclosure when Mr. Walker showed up. "I didn't mean you could dig in my wheat field!" He said, "You can dig anywhere else but here!" Then we backfilled and went home.

Since the wheat field was off limits that left nearly 3 miles that was open territory. So, with shovel in hand, I started walking and shoveling. I did a lot of this in Kansas when looking for earthlodges while working for Wedel. You just keep an eye on the landscape when the topography is promising give that area special attention. I did this on Selden Island for there were no surface indications except in the wheat field of any prehistoric activity. After an hour or so of an unsuccessful shoveling I unearthed a potsherd not at all similar to those found in the wheat field. Now that my curiosity was at its peak I expanded my test and found more pottery and uncovered the faint outline of a circular pit. This was the beginning of a series of similar pits unearthed. For details see (Richard Slattery, "A Prehistoric Indian Site on Selden Island, Montgomery County Maryland";. Journal of The Washington Academy Of Science Vol. 36, No.8. 1948.

It should be mentioned here that Drs. Wedel and Setzler had taken an interest in the area labeled as Site #3 on the photograph. They had visited the site several times and were impressed with the lack of charcoal and bone material in the pits and the presence of pieces of highly weathered, fully grooved, axes. The added presence of curious molds in all 12 of the pits seemed to indicate that something organic had occupied those molds and had long ago decayed. All this evidence together seemed to indicate great age. I consulted an archeologist here in Iowa about the disappearance of charcoal in soils over time and his answer was that “the manganese in the soil will do this over long periods of time”.

It is now time to turn our attention to the Site # 2 which is located at the western end of the contour indicating the higher elevation on the island. When Hugh Stabler and I located the site, it was quite rich with artifacts on the surface. These included three complete celts, pottery and a few points. This together with the pottery was enough to place the site in the “LateWoodland” time period.

No excavations were ever conducted on this site. This was a shame for there was one defining characteristic about the site and that was the pottery. It is hard to describe this unusual pottery for it will seem so common but in fact is so different. It is deeply chord roughened, with no collared rim, and lacking any other decoration. Even on the lip. The pottery is well fired and lacking any noticeable tempering material.

Where else has this strange pottery been found? Stabler and I know of three places:

  1. We located the Winslow site in 1934 and returned to excavate in 1940. Naturally we had to shovel test around the area and one of the first tests we made hit a storage pit. This pit was 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and among the charcoal and other debris we found the pottery sherds just described above.
  2. On a trip to “Fort Frederick in the late 30's we walked down stream and found a village site where this type of pottery was dominant.
  3. One time we went down in Virginia to the area of Hawksbill Creek and discovered a site that had been plowed for the first time and there we found several celts and large pieces of this same pottery.

Perhaps with a glass one could identify some tempering but with the passage of so many years I don't remember seeing any tempering.

Having excavated a number of pits and completing my report I abandoned my investigations on Selden Island when the property changed ownership and the Gore family took it over.

The balance of this history is based on personal knowledge and reliable information from trusted sources.

Sometime in the early 50's I revisited Selden Island and met Albert Hahn, who was busy excavating burials from the major site (Number 1 on the photo). I didn't approve of this for it reminded me of the Yinger brothers devastation of the Hughes Site. On the other hand I did not see any evidence that Hahn was selling artifacts or collecting pottery or bone implements. His sole objective seemed to be the burial itself and any items that were buried with it as offerings.

That was the only time that I visited the site while he was there but on invitation I did visit his house one day. He lived with his Mother in Potomac Maryland on River Rd just about one block south of the crossroad to Rockville. Once inside I was amazed to see 76 beer cases stacked up in the living room against all four walls!(Perhaps this was why I could sense that he and his mother didn't seem to get along too well.) Anyway, Albert explained to me that each carton contained one burial! You would think that Dale Stewart, Chief Anthropologist at the Smithsonian, would have his eye on such a cache as that! Well he did and visited the site and tried to make a deal with Hahn, but Hahn wasn't finished digging yet.

A short time later I got a phone call from Albert who asked if he could come over. Hesaid that he had something to show me. This was the first time that he ever called so I knew it must be something unusual. Wanting to be prepared, I got my camera out and awaited his arrival.

Soon he was here clutching a small box. When he opened it my jaw dropped! He had two of the most beautiful pipes I had ever seen. One was a rather large elbow pipe carved out of steatite. A beautiful pipe but easy to describe. The other one was not only a pipe but a work of exceedingly fine art. It is described in detail on page 165 in the Montgomery Focus Report as follows:


"In 1957 Slattery observed a unique effigy pipe recovered by Hahn at the Gore Site. The pipe was about 10 centimeters across and fashioned from white calcite. The effigy was plainly that of a mountain lion, with its back arched and its tail curved to its head, creating an opening in the loop for holding the pipe. The bowl and the stem hole were recessed into the apex of the arched back. Both holes still held soil of the grave in which the pipe had been buried. The artistic craftsmanship on this artifact was superb. Regrettably no photograph was taken. "  

I must explain that last sentence for, as I stated above, I had my camera ready but since both pipes were dirt encrusted I decided to wait until Hahn washed them off then I would photograph them and their true beauty would shine. I will always regret that decision.

What happened next was a shock to all. It seems that just a few weeks passed after the pipe episode, the Hahn property was sold and both Albert and his mother moved to Florida, taking all of their belongings, including the pipes and the 76 boxes of bones. What happened next is only hearsay, but from reliable sources I heard that Albert died and the house they lived in burned down and all in it was lost. I still can't get my mind off that Mountain lion pipe and I am sure Dale was also sorry to loose all those bones.

During the following years Selden Island went down hill archeologically. In 1966 I was living in Iowa and working for the army but I never lost contact with my friends back east or Potomac archeology. So when I heard that I had a business trip to make to Washington, D.C., I planned to take a few more days and do some archeology so I got in touch with Doug Woodward and we planned to visit all the sites that we didn't have c-14 samples for and fill in the gaps so we could place them in our Montgomery Focus Report. We got all of them except the three on Selden Island. We drove onto the Island but soon a young man came dashing across the field in a car, would have nothing to do with reason or archeology and told us to "get off the Island". So we never got a date for any of the sites on the Island. Too bad for the S.I. was paying for them and they would have enriched our knowledge a great deal, for the three sites were all from different cultures as their pottery so indicated.

Now in the 21st century, all the news I hear about Selden Island is bad. I heard that a pond was made where the early woodland site was that I wrote the paper on and pottery and artifacts were scattered over the whole area and a golf course has been placed over the large late woodland site where no one will ever complete the stockade where we found the 35 post moulds. I am certain that one day not too far distant a flood will wash the island clean as it has done many times in the past.

Richard Slattery provides the lunchtime lecture during the
2003 Field Session at the Winslow Site, 18MO9.