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Students Unearth 6,000-Year-Old Stone Axe at Mount Vernon

The tool, which was likely used for cutting or carving wood rather than as a weapon, was crafted during 4000 B.C.

Two high schoolers from Akron, Ohio, stumbled upon the tool while sifting through sediment during a dig at the estate (Sierra Medellin/George Washington’s Mount Vernon)
smithsonian.com

Long before George Washington moved into Mount Vernon, a Native American roaming the lands that would later become the first president’s estate lost a prized belonging: a three-inch wide, seven inch-long, carefully crafted stone axe likely used for cutting or carving wood. It would remain missing for some 6,000 years, Michael E. Ruane writes for The Washington Post, only resurfacing during a routine dig conducted at the historic home last month.

Dominic Anderson and Jared Phillips, a pair of high school seniors who hail from Akron, Ohio, happened upon the ancient axe while helping to map out the dimensions of a cemetery believed to house the remains of Mount Vernon’s slaves and their descendants. The two were sifting through sediment when they spotted the axe, which bore a striking resemblance to a lumpy potato after spending 6,000 years exposed to the elements.

Anderson and Phillips approached Joe Downer, Mount Vernon’s archaeological field research manager, and asked if the peculiar object was of any significance.

“I was kind of taken aback when I saw it,” Downer tells Ruane. “I looked at it, and I held it for a minute, and I was like, ‘Well, that might be one of the coolest things we found out here.’ It’s pretty unmistakable when you see it.”

According to a press release, the axe, which was dated to around 4000 B.C. based on its similarity to other tools from that period, still retains evidence of its creator’s skill and craftsmanship.

In order to make the axe, a craftsperson must have used a hammer stone to chip away at a rock’s surface and form a sharp edge. This cutting surface was smoothed down with a second harder stone, then refined with a hard grinding stone. A groove added to facilitate the attachment of a wooden handle provided the axe’s finishing touch.

Sean Devlin, curator of Mount Vernon’s archaeological collections, tells Ruane that the arduous process of crafting the axe likely augmented its value.

“When you spend the effort to make tools like this axe, you would have probably carried it with you,” he said. “You wouldn’t just make something like this off the cuff … and used it once or twice and chucked it. … This is something people invested time in.”

The axe’s one-time owner resided in a Potomac River ridgeline first inhabited by Virginia’s Native American groups as long as 8,000 years ago. Although the site appears to have hosted such communities for several thousand years, it may not have been a permanent village, so to speak. Instead, it could’ve been a stopping point during seasonal migration along the river.

Although the original owner likely mourned the loss of such a useful tool, their misfortune proved to be a boon to contemporary archaeologists hoping to gain a better understanding of Mount Vernon’s pre-presidential history.

For now, the axe will be catalogued, cleaned and preserved. Ultimately, it will join a collection of more than 50,000 artifacts already found at the site.

“The axe provides a window onto the lives of individuals who lived here nearly 6,000 years ago,” Devlin said in a statement. “Artifacts, such as this, are a vital resource for helping us learn about the diverse communities who shaped this landscape throughout its long history."

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