Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology

2017 Edition
| Editors: Allan S. Gilbert

Cactus Hill, Virginia

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4409-0_72

Cactus Hill is an archaeologically stratified, multicomponent site discovered in 1993 on an interior coastal plain terrace adjacent to the Nottoway River in southeastern Virginia, USA. Utilized by humans over a period of many thousands of years, the site is most known for its buried Paleo-Indian occupations, one of which is indisputably of the Clovis culture and another, lying below the Clovis, interpreted to be of an origin predating Clovis. Several lines of evidence support a pre-Clovis component: (1) A sterile 7–20 cm zone of vertical separation lies between Clovis and underlying pre-Clovis materials; (2) different lithic assemblages are distinguished – imported cryptocrystalline rock types (such as chert and chalcedony) are exclusive to the Clovis level, while locally obtained quartzite was used by the pre-Clovis; (3) a distinctive core blade artifact technology for the pre-Clovis occupation; and (4) 14C charcoal ages of 10,920 BP for the Clovis but as early as 16,670 BP for the pre-Clovis. The pre-Clovis component was subsequently referred to as Blade (McAvoy and McAvoy, 1997).

Because the above evidence argues against a long-held theory that Clovis people were the first inhabitants of the Americas, the Blade component became the focus of critical attention. Beyond the theoretical conception was a speculation that the sandy composition of Cactus Hill’s dunal soil may have been too unstable to preserve very old cultural materials in an ordered stratified sequence. Multidisciplinary geoarchaeological investigations were employed to address this concern. Pedological investigations (Wagner and McAvoy, 2004) recognized episodic sand deposition but also identified preserved buried surface horizons both at the Clovis level and a deeper, much earlier one (19,540 14C BP) predating all site occupations. These surfaces and strongly developed, very old subsoil lamellae demonstrated intervals of prolonged stasis and soil formation as well as mostly protective burial during deposition events. Similarly, micromorphological examinations of soil matrices (Macphail and McAvoy, 2008) convincingly showed that Blade artifacts were unlikely to have been emplaced by a process of downdrift from the Clovis level. While relic surface horizon microaggregates were identified at both the Clovis and Blade levels, comparable surface indicators were not present within the intervening culturally sterile zone. In further support, luminescence dating (Feathers et al., 2006) of principal strata was in close agreement with radiocarbon ages and also verified an ordered vertical progression of increasing age with depth. Taken together, the above data indicate that natural soil disturbances such as deflation or mixing appear to have been relatively limited and not likely to have appreciably affected the long-term integrity of site stratigraphy.


  1. Feathers, J. K., Rhodes, E. J., Huot, S., and McAvoy, J. M., 2006. Luminescence dating of sand deposits related to late Pleistocene human occupation at the Cactus Hill Site, Virginia, USA. Quaternary Geochronology, 1(3), 167–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Macphail, R. I., and McAvoy, J. M., 2008. A micromorphological analysis of stratigraphic integrity and site formation at Cactus Hill, an early Paleoindian and hypothesized pre-Clovis occupation in south-central Virginia, USA. Geoarchaeology, 23(5), 675–694.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. McAvoy, J. M., and McAvoy, L. D., 1997. Archaeological Investigations of Site 44SX202, Cactus Hill, Sussex County, Virginia. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Research Report Series, Vol. 8.Google Scholar
  4. Wagner, D. P., and McAvoy, J. M., 2004. Pedoarchaeology of Cactus Hill, a sandy Paleoindian site in Southeastern Virginia, USA Geoarchaeology, 19(4), 297–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Geo-Sci Consultants LLCUniversity ParkUSA