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30 December 2012
Ancient burial rituals uncovered in Maryland

Since 2009 archaeologists have uncovered a trove of prehistoric Native American artifacts along the Patuxent River (Maryland, USA) indicating the spot was a gathering place for thousands of years. This year's dig at Pig Point uncovered what appears to be a ritualistic burial place with five or more oval pits with human bone and artifacts dating from 230 BCE to 620 CE.
     "It looks like this was ritual central for 850 years or more," county archaeologist Al Luckenbach said. "This casts all the things we discovered in the first three years in a completely different light. It is a hell of a mystery."
     Years ago, deposits of what is known as Adena flint - tools, arrow and spear points and pipes made of stone found only in quarries in Ohio - have been found along a line stretching from Ohio to Delaware.  
     Luckenbach was thrilled to have found a couple of intact sections of Adena tube pipe in the previous Pig Point digs. "Now we have 80 to 100 of them," he said. But it was the bones that opened up an entirely new realm of discovery.
"We were finding all these pieces of bone. For a few weeks we didn't know they were human. Until we saw teeth," he said. Curiously, all the bone found is long bone, arm or leg bone, and skull fragments. There are no pelvic bone, spine, rib bones.
     Early Native American tribes engaged in reburial rituals. Every year, 10 years, or more, a group would gather the remains of their dead and commit them to a common burial ground. Ossuaries held the the dead whether nothing but skeleton or fresher remains. But the bodies were intact, or mostly so. The difference at Pig Point is that all the bones were smashed, broken on purpose. And so were thousands of artifacts such as fancy Adena points, beads, gorgets, and other items. All broken into bits. "These are perhaps the most significant discoveries ever made by the project," Luckenbach said. "It is an opportunity to uncover a type of ritual behavior never before seen by science."
     An excavated pit, which was filled with ash and the fractured bone, points, pottery and such, shows evidence the Native Americans returned to the same pit, uncovered it and added more material over the years. "Were they ancestors, or enemies? Or could these be offerings to the gods." Questions abound. "This is unreported ritual behavior. The groups repeatedly gathered at this site to trade, fish, conduct rituals and arrange marriages," Luckenbach said.
     Other scientists agree. Chris Goodwin, of R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates in Frederick, said that "Although there are other Adena sites, this one is very different because of the amount of material... and the presence of apparently ritual behaviors." Pig Point's "impact is significant, it can answer a lot of questions about this period," said Darrin Lowrey, of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History and the University of Delaware. "The way humans treat their dead will tell you a lot about what is going on."
     The remains, once studied, will be re-buried yet again, Luckenbach said. He has contacted the Piscataway tribe in Maryland to offer them the chance to perform the burial of the bones using rituals they see fit.

Edited from Capital Gazette (22 December 2012)

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