Sunwatch Archaeological Park, Dayton OH

The Sunwatch Archaeological Park in Dayton OH is a recreation of a pre-contact Native American village, on the original archaeological site. Each building has been painstakingly reconstructed within its remaining footprint.

Sunwatch Archaeological Park

The Native American peoples who inhabited the Ohio River Valley in the northern United States from roughly 1000 CE to around 1600 CE are known as the Fort Ancient Culture (named after the site in Ohio where they were first discovered). They replaced the earlier Hopewell and Adena cultures.

These earlier people were mound-builders, who often buried their high-status dead in artificial hills made by carrying and packing dirt and mud, one basketful at a time. They also built ceremonial “effigy mounds” in the shape of animals.

By the time of the Fort Ancient peoples, however, mound-building had largely died out. The Fort Ancients sometimes buried their high-status dead in previously-existing Adena mounds, but most often they were interred in graves located on a plaza in the center of the village, or sometimes under the dirt floor of their hut. The Fort Ancients may have made the Great Serpent effigy mound, however, though some archaeologists date this to the earlier Adenas.

The Fort Ancients are most noted, though, for their cultivation of maize, which they seem to have introduced to the Ohio Valley (The earlier Adenas did not cultivate maize, which may indicate that the Fort Ancients were not their direct descendants and may have moved in from somewhere else.) They also cultivated beans, squash, and sunflowers, and hunted in the local forest and fished in the nearby Great Miami River. Food was stored in coiled ceramic pots.

This steady food source allowed them to live sedentary lives in settled villages of 200-500 people. There were huts made from wooden poles and woven walls, some covered with clay, that were thatched with grass. These were arranged around a flat ceremonial plaza in the middle. Some villages also had wooden wattle-work fences surrounding them, perhaps as a way to protect against enemy raiding parties, or more likely simply as a way to keep deer away from the cornfields. Villages seemed to have been typically occupied for 25-50 years until the soil became depleted, when they would move on to a fresh site.

Although there was never any direct contact between the Fort Ancient peoples and newly-arrived Europeans, there was indirect contact: glass and iron objects have been found in late Fort Ancient burials that were apparently obtained through trade with neighboring peoples. This indirect contact also seems to be what ended the Fort Ancient culture, when diseases brought to North America by the Spaniards swept across from one tribe to another, wiping them out as it went. Reaching the Fort Ancients by around 1600, it devastated the population and destroyed the culture, with the last stragglers being found in northern Kentucky. The now-depopulated area of the Ohio valley was re-populated by the ancestors of the Shawnee, who moved in and were still living there at the time of European contact. There is, however, some evidence of a cultural link between the Fort Ancients and the Shawnee.

In the 1960s, amateur enthusiasts had found several stone artifacts in a field near Dayton OH. So when the city decided to use that site for a sewage treatment plant, some professional archaeologists were called in for a “salvage excavation” to see if there was anything significant there. What they found surprised them: the site contained the remains of an entire Fort Ancient village, one of the most complete ever found. The city government dropped its construction plans and instead designated the area as an “archaeological park”. Excavations lasted until 1988.

During the digs, a number of large post-holes were found in the plaza at the center of the village, which aligned with various astronomical events such as the solstices and equinoxes. These were interpreted as a solar calendar, used to determine the best times of year to plant the food crops. This led to the name by which the village is still referred to: “Sunwatch”. Near this was a large hall or hut, which became known as the Big House. It likely was a ceremonial building.

Once the archaeological work was finished, it was decided to turn the Sunwatch site into an educational center with a museum that would display many of the artifacts that had been recovered there, including pottery fragments, as well as stone and bone tools. Also, the village would be reconstructed using period techniques and materials, with rebuilt huts being placed directly into their own original post-holes. The solar calendar on the plaza was reconstructed using logs.

The village is now listed as a National Historic Landmark.

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