All That Fire Cracked Rock in the Palisades

The most defining characteristic of precolumbian evidence in the Palisades is the ubiquity of fire-cracked rock.  The telling characteristics are varying hues of red, and more specifically, the jagged fractures that typically appear with quartzitic rock.  When I first started discovering these rocks, I assumed they were the result of hearths in ancient settlements/camps. The first property where I found FCR on a wide-scale was the property directly behind my house.  The excavation, like all the contemporary ones, was on a large scale and comprised an area of about 40 X 100 feet. Throughould the excavation, a near continuous scattering of FCR existed. Density of the scattered rock was both continuous and included various rock types – the quartz/quartzitic varieties were most common and visibly obvious because their tendencies to fracture irregularly.   Often the redness from the heat would diminish as you viewed the rock’s cross section from outer to inner core. This first site where I discovered abundant FCR was lowlying, had a well-developed fine clay stratum and little slope that made the site waterlogged and often filled with water. The equal distribution of the FCR over the broad area made me think that, slightly joking, the Indians had been throwing hot rocks into a pond that might have been used for bathing/hot-tubbing.  At the time, the random distribution of pottery sherds, flakes, and occasional projectile points at the site didn’t make me question this rock-from-hearth scenario.


Another recent excavation in the neighborhood featured once again an approximate 40 x 100 ft. hole in the earth, and it was similarly associated with a uniform distribution of FCR across the property.   I noticed that the rock type slightly below level (and occasionally slightly above) the FCR stratum consisted of the exact same type of rocks, and in the same uniform distribution. The fact that these same rock types in stratums slightly below show no signs of heat suggests to me that fires ravaged the land and burnt rocks only on the ground surface.   The use of fire as land management by indigenous people is something that is now recognized by archeologists as a common and important activity of New World people – even in areas not prone to natural forest fires, like the Palisades of Washington DC.


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