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Darrin L. Lowery, a University of Delaware archaeologist and a former Smithsonian Institution research fellow, called the site “almost like a prehistoric funeral home.” But it is more than that, he said. “It’s a very sacred funeral home.”

“Finding that is pretty rare — actually, virtually unheard-of in the archaeological record,” he said. “Finding the activities leading up to the burial preparation is a pretty unique lens into that moment in time.”

The discovery could help illuminate another mystery. Since the 1930s, amateur archaeologists and relic hunters have been digging up artifacts in Delaware and Maryland that seemed to have come from prehistoric mound-building cultures in the Ohio River Valley, hundreds of miles west.

There are about eight of those sites in the Chesapeake region; only two were excavated with any care, both by amateur archaeologists. In one case, teenage boys who had looted the spot were pressed into service to help excavate it.

The discoveries led some anthropologists to conclude that people from the Adena and Hopewell cultures had migrated from the Ohio Valley to the Chesapeake region, even though their burial mounds have never been found in the area. “Delmarva Adena,” the clumsy term adopted to describe them, refers to the bay peninsula that includes most of Delaware and parts of Maryland and Virginia.

Later scientists hypothesized that trade between the Ohio Valley and the Chesapeake region accounted for the artifacts common to both. Pig Point seems to reinforce that view: the pits have yielded projectile points made of flint from New York and Pennsylvania, far from the Ohio Valley.

Until Pig Point, it had been decades since any fresh archaeological evidence had surfaced linking the Adena to the Chesapeake. But about nine years ago, William Brown III, a local utility contractor, was digging a ditch when he struck midden, preserved layers of debris that are an archaeological gold mine because each layer is sealed in chronologically consecutive strata of soil.

“When I dug that ditch and I saw those intact layers, I knew that it had to be done right,” he said.

Mr. Brown’s family has owned land on or near Pig Point since colonial times. As a child, he used to collect arrowheads from the family’s tobacco fields near the property, which probably got its name from pig iron ingots in the soil. Some of the arrowheads appeared to date from the Clovis era, some 13,000 years ago.

Mr. Brown was familiar with Dr. Luckenbach’s work as head of the county’s Lost Towns Project, which until then had focused on colonial-era excavation. He invited Dr. Luckenbach to the site, and the dig began in 2009.

Now in its fifth season, the Pig Point dig has consistently surprised Dr. Luckenbach and his colleagues, yielding a near-daily feast of exotic blades, ornate ceramics and fossilized shark’s teeth found in deposits along the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. One deep pit revealed remnants of 3,000-year-old wigwams midway up the hill, and carbon dating showed habitation as long as 9,300 years ago.

Michael R. Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, said deposits that deep were rare on the East Coast.

As a vast collection of artifacts grew — almost half a million items have been cataloged — Dr. Luckenbach hypothesized that Pig Point was a sort of regional rest area, a feasting spot for prehistoric travelers.

It would have been an idyllic stopover. During fish runs, the Patuxent teemed with shad, and massive sturgeon prowled under the surface. Mussels crowded the riverbed, with oysters farther downstream. Acorn and hickory trees offered nuts for roasting and eating. Today, wild rice and edible tuckahoe plants blanket the marshland along the banks.

Dr. Luckenbach said he considered wrapping up the dig last year, but a patch of grass nearby intrigued him. It was a small area, bordered by asphalt on four sides. In May of last year, the team sank their shovels into the spot.

To their astonishment, almost everything they found was “smashed to smithereens,” Dr. Luckenbach said, including bones scattered throughout the site. Then the teeth and skull pieces surfaced, but no human pelvis or torso bones. A forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution has been analyzing the remains, which will eventually be reburied at the spot.

The new pits also yielded the first Ohio Valley flints and pipes at the dig. Some items were unlike any seen so far, including Adena blades as long as 10 inches and tiny copper beads. Carbon dating revealed that the site had been continuously used for at least half a millennium, from 230 B.C. to about A.D. 300.

Dr. Luckenbach began to suspect that they had found a mortuary site — a place where the bones of the dead might have been brought for rituals, then carried to ossuaries in other locations for burial.

On a sunny summer morning, the grass was still wet with dew as the Pig Point crew assembled around Dr. Luckenbach, his baseball cap pulled low to shade his eyes. Some took sips from coffee cups and thermoses. One staff member passed around a homemade fruit tart.

Minutes after work began, the field director, Shawn Sharpe, loped from pit to pit, an ornament in his outstretched hand. “It’s a very nice copper bead that just came out,” he said.

From the hilltop, Dr. Luckenbach took in the view of the river below, and the broad flats of its banks — the same view as when the mysterious gatherings took place at Pig Point thousands of years ago. “It could well have been a camp down here,” he said.

He gestured toward the next hill upriver, musing about what it might hide. “You look at the next little bluff and the next one and the next one,” he said, “and you want to look at all these places and figure out how all of the pieces fit together.”

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http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/science/a-maryland-hills-prehistoric-secret.html