July 10, 2021

4.5 Latest Research on the Peopling of North America: Parsons Island and the Chesapeake Bay

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Dr. Darrin Lowery, Director of Chesapeake Watershed Archaeological Research Foundation, supported by the Maryland Historical Trust, the Smithsonian Institution.






Lowery, D.L. 2021. Parsons Island, Maryland: Synthesis of Geoarchaeological Investigations, 2013-2020. Chesapeake Watershed Archaeological Research Foundation, the Maryland Historical Trust, the Smithsonian Institution.

On May 20th, 2013, Dr. John Wah and myself visited Parsons Island, Maryland (see Figures 1.1 and 1.2). The expedition on that day represented my second excursion to Parsons in twenty-one years. My first visit to Parsons occurred in 1992 as part of a collective multi-year archaeological survey of the Kent Island area (see Lowery 1993), which was conducted for the Kent Island Heritage Society, the University of Delaware, and the Maryland Historical Trust. In 1992, Parsons Island encompassed 99-acres (see Figure 1.2) and when we re-visited the island in 2013, the island had eroded to ~78-acres. In 2019, the island had been reduced to ~71-acres and presently Parsons consists of ~69-acres. The perimeter of exposed shoreline also changed markedly during this period of time. In 1992, the island had 2.11 linear miles (3.4 km or 11,159 feet) of coastline and by 2019 the amount of coastline had been reduced to 1.65 linear miles (2.66 km or 8,716 feet). Over the twenty-seven-year period, the island has collectively lost about one-acre of land per year to coastal erosion. With the gradual reduction in linear miles of shoreline over this period, it is clear that the rate of annual land loss has actually increased in recent years. Notably, most of the land loss is focused along the island’s southwest margin. 
Our re-visit to Parsons Island on May 20th, 2013 (see Figure 1.3), originated as a result of our late Pleistocene stratigraphic and geoarchaeological investigations conducted at nearby Miles Point, Talisman Farm, and Barnstable Hill (see Figure 1.4). The collective research conducted at Parsons Island over the succeeding seven years culminated into a better understanding of the Middle Atlantic’s Paleo-American archaeological record (see Figure 1.4), a higher-resolution evaluation of the region’s late Pleistocene upland stratigraphy, and a means to quantify some of the site formation processes along eroding coastal margins. This monograph synthesizes the results of these investigations. Regardless of the possible age of the Paleo-American record noted at Parsons Island, the primary objective has always been salvage. Some “academicians” and a few “cultural resource managers” view investigations at eroding coastal archaeological sites in the Chesapeake Bay region as being “biased” and “anecdotal” (see Custer 2018: 202). It should be obvious, the erosive effects by the estuarine water of the Chesapeake Bay are unbiased and these waters will indiscriminately destroy both historic sites, as well as prehistoric sites. The results of our collective investigation at Parsons Island also proves that if follow-up investigations are made at “untrustworthy” (Ibid) sites, “anecdotal” discoveries can make major contributions to the regional, as well as North America’s geoarchaeological record. 
In 2019, the Chesapeake Watershed Archaeological Research foundation applied for a non-capital grant from the Maryland Historical Trust. The goal of the proposal was to synthesize all of the prior work at Parsons Island, document the island’s archaeological record, and conduct limited excavations inland of the shoreline at 18QU1047 to determine if any in-situ cultural deposits remained. Earlier work conducted by the Smithsonian Institution in 2017 had uncovered a small in-situ quartz flake and charcoal located two-meters beneath the ground surface and within a buried paleosol. Like several other radiometric ages on charcoal associated with lithic artifacts found in-situ and exposed along the eroding bank, the Smithsonian date was greater than 20,000 years old. Paleo-botanical remains from this surface are consistent with the presumed age and the OSL-ages on the overlying sediments indicate comparable estimates for the underlying buried surface. 
This monograph, which was funded by the Maryland Historical Trust’s Historic Preservation Non-Capital Grant program, attempts to synthesize the collective analytical results conducted by various
researchers. The monograph also shows that the discoveries at Parsons Island are not “anecdotal” (Ibid). The follow-up testing at 18QU1047 funded by the non-capital grant indicate additional in-situ archaeological remains occur immediately inland from the shoreline. Even with the current data, we do not know the inland extent of the two surviving archaeological sites currently located on Parsons Island. Because of the ongoing effects of coastal erosion, we may be seeing the beginning, the middle, or the tail-end of these two sites. Most importantly, additional investigations of Parsons Island could be conducted. With our objective to assist the landowners of Parsons Island, the research outlined in this monograph should augment the urgency and the immediacy for shoreline stabilization. Archaeological resources; regardless of their significance, have typically been viewed as an obstacle (see Lowery 2007) by landowners. In short, the generous support and access afforded by the landowners of Parsons Island should illustrate to others that collaborations between scholars and landowners can result in mutual objectives; i.e., site preservation via shoreline stabilization. 
In sum, the data presented in this monograph should illustrate to landowners, academicians, cultural resource managers, members of the interested public, and outside scholars about the unique and somewhat discouraging coastal erosion scenarios noted along a small portion (see Figure 1.5) of the Chesapeake Bay’s 11,684 linear miles (18,804 km) of shoreline. The land and archaeological site loss noted at Parsons Island (see Figure 1.5) is common along raw exposed shorelines throughout the region. With respect to both site loss and coastal erosion in the Middle Atlantic region, I once stated in a professional lecture that you are “not in Kansas anymore”. 
Hopefully, the work synthesized in this monograph will help the public to better understand the daunting issues surrounding coastal erosion and archaeological site loss in the Chesapeake Bay area. Between 1992 and 2018 along solely a ~360-meter (~1180 feet) section of Parsons Island’s southwestern margin, over 55,000 cubic meters (~72,162 cubic yards) of sediment eroded into the Chesapeake Bay. During this twenty-six-year period, the amount of sediment eroded and sieved by the actions of both water and waves would fill over 5,000 commercial-sized dump trucks. In 2015, the State Archaeologist of Virginia asked me, “Why is it you find so many interesting archaeological remains along shorelines?” Note that Virginia has 7,213 linear miles (11,608 km) of shoreline. The answer to this question is simple. I doubt that there has ever been a single professional archaeological excavation in North America where so much sediment has been extracted and sieved for archaeological remains (i.e., artifacts) over such a short period of time. Remarkably, the rate of erosion and land loss noted at Parsons Island is not uncommon along vast sections of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. It is fascinating that some professional archaeologists in the region (see Custer 2018) do not recognize coastal erosion as the principal variable resulting in increased probability for artifact discovery. Hopefully, this monograph will provide some guidance and rectify many of the crucial misunderstandings about the region.


This is a podcast about new and innovative research in archaeology.

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Season 4 is on Latest Research on the Peopling of North America.

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