Situated in temperate Central Virginia, the Rice Center’s location suggests an ideal setting for human habitation reaching back to the Paleo-Indian period (12,000-10,000 B.P.). Even though tool technology was generally uniform across North America during this time, it’s likely that the unique environmental and social habitats of Central Virginia led to specialized cultural systems among the Paleo-Indians at the Rice Center. These early inhabitants would have survived by being flexible, by quickly adapting and by creating technological and social forms in response to changing needs. Such flexibility was easily possible given the low numbers and densities of populations during this period.
During the Archaic period (10,000-3,200 B.P.), Virginia’s native inhabitants began to settle down and, in doing so, needed to maximize the resources they could use in their immediate neighborhoods. New technologies including fish traps, soapstone bowls and food storage pits, along with increasing settlement, created new cultural forms for late-Archaic inhabitants of the Chesapeake region.
The Woodland period (3,200-400 B.P.) is the best known of the prehistoric periods, being the most recent period and the most archaeologically rich. Also contributing to our vast knowledge of the period is its culmination in the Powhatan Confederacy, a group which European colonists met and about whom the Europeans had much to comment. Also, many descendants of Powhatan Indians still live in Virginia today, providing an excellent ethnohistorical source.
During the course of the Woodland period, communities became increasingly settled. Trade networks became more necessary and complex, ceramic vessels for storing foodstuffs were introduced, agriculture was practiced and chiefdoms arose — the Powhatan Confederacy being the most notable in Central Virginia.
A wider variety of animals were successfully hunted due to the introduction of the bow and arrow, and agriculture came to play an increasingly important role in late-Woodland culture, although to a far greater extent west of the James River fall line than east. In the coastal plain, agriculture appears to have been largely limited to corn, beans and squash.
Beginning around 1500 A.D., Algonquian-speaking groups living in Virginia’s coastal plain began to consolidate under the auspices of one leader, whom the English settlers referred to as the Powhatan. Among these was the Weyanoke, the group most likely to have inhabited the Rice Center property. The Weyanoke lived in five or six settlements along or near the James at the time of European contact, one chief ruling over them all. Their primary capital was at Weyanoke in Charles City County, with a secondary capital in Prince George County. Their villages were small, as John Smith wrote:
“… commonly by the water side, in little cottages made of canes and reeds, covered with the barke of trees. They dwell, as I guesse by families of kindred and alliance, some fortie or fiftie in a … small village, which townes are not past a myle or half a mile asunder in most places.” – Captain John Smith
Such locations would have provided an abundance of terrestrial and riverine resources.
Many of the archaeological sites directly attributed to the Weyanoke lie in close proximity to the Rice Center. The property was likely used as a short-term resource acquisition camp for the Weyanoke, who would have traveled throughout their territory in search of faunal and floral foods, stone for tools and other natural resources.
It’s likely that in addition to such uses, the property served as home to small groups of Weyanoke, making it possible that archaeological features associated with domestic structures will be found, as well as the expected stone tools, debris from stone tool manufacture and remains of consumed flora and fauna.