Hands holding two rounded stone celts

Prior to the introduction of iron, Virginia Indians used stone axes in a similar fashion to their English equivalents. These two greenstone celts (called “cunsenagwas” by the Algonquian) are made from a metamorphosed igneous rock commonly known as basalt, acquired through trade with other Native American groups. The Powhatan Indians were one of the most sophisticated and powerful peoples on the eastern seaboard of North America. The Powhatan chiefdom endured less than a century, but in that time it was a dominant force in the region and had a profound effect on the English colony planted in its midst. Until recently, our knowledge of the Powhatans came from what the English wrote about them and from the limited archaeological evidence provided by a few contact period sites. Now, 20 years of archaeological rediscovery at the James Fort site have produced a wealth of Native material to flesh out the story of the Powhatan chiefdom.

For the Virginia Indians, producing a celt was a labor-intensive and time-consuming task. The base material was shaped into its final form by pecking and grinding with a rock that was harder than the tool itself. After the celt had been shaped into its final form, the tool was polished with sand and water. It is believed that these tools were hafted into a wooden handle and that the hard stone was excellent for cutting materials such as wood. Although Virginia Indians came to prize the English iron axes, traditional tools such as these continued in use.