This reconstructed ancient village was created by studying archaeological remains of a village that was densely populated over 800 years ago (circa 1050 A.D.). The village offers one of the most tangible ways of exploring the culture, agriculture, rituals, and lifestyles of the Native American inhabitants who settled along the banks of the Ohio and Miami Rivers at that time. In addition to archaeological research conducted on site, the village operates as an open-air museum that is thanks to the Dayton Society of Natural History.
Though professional excavation is still ongoing, SunWatch lets visitors explore reconstructed dwellings and a plaza that features a complex series of posts that demonstrate how Native peoples used astronomical measurements to follow seasons in ways that supported agriculture. The site offers special events and educational opportunities designed to introduce visitors to Native American culture, the processes of archaeology, and natural history. The nearby Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in downtown Dayton houses artifacts found at the site.
Beginning around 1,000 A.D., the Fort Ancient peoples thrived throughout Southern Ohio, living largely on corn agriculture in large, densely populated villages, such as that at SunWatch. Due to, in part, the excavations, researchers know that these villages typically housed between 100 and 500 residents (the population varied seasonally as inhabitants would often leave for winter hunting camps). Although more sedentary than the Native Americans living in the Late Woodland era (450 to 1,000 A.D.), Fort Ancient residents typically lived in a settlement for about 20 to 30 years, such as the case with SunWatch. Villages attributed to Fort Ancient peoples essentially disappeared around 1650 (no archaeological evidence supports the arrival of European diseases, though some believe this to be the case), and very few European explorers and settlers ever came across a Fort Ancient site.
As an archaeological site, SunWatch was discovered in the 1960s by amateur archaeologists John Allman and Charles Smith, who found an array of prehistoric materials along the Miami River. However, when news arrived that the City of Dayton was going to expand a wastewater treatment plant onto the site in the early 1970s, Allman and Smith contacted the Dayton Museum of Natural History. James Heilman, the Curator of Anthropology at the Museum, initiated a “salvage” excavation to recover as much information as possible from the site before the proposed destruction.
From the excavations, archaeologists recovered a stockaded village estimated to have been occupied for about 20 years was revealed, along with a series of complex series of astronomical markers. Throughout the three-acre site, researchers found a wealth of fragile artifacts (such as crayfish pincers, fish scales, turkey eggshell fragments, and uncharred wood remains), as well as information regarding the original people’s dwellings, social organization, diets, burial practices, and so forth. Because of outreach from supporters, scholars, volunteers, and others, the site was salvaged from destruction.
In 1988, SunWatch opened to the public. The site combines years of excavation with analysis to provide visitors reconstructed Fort Ancient dwellings as they were in 13th-century locations, as well as an interpretive center packed with excavated artifacts.
Some of the structures featured in the reconstructed village include five lath and daub structures with grass thatch roofs, a partially completed stockade, and a native garden complete with plants typical to both the period and Fort Ancient historic preferences. Perhaps one of the more impressive features of SunWatch is its plaza, which features a complex arraignment of posts that many researchers believe to be astronomical measurements for the purposes of agriculture and culture.1
Because of the archaeological value of the site, SunWatch was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and was designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1990. In addition to Native American education and outreach programs, SunWatch remains a major proponent of archaeological education to both children and adults.
Although most of the artifacts have already been excavated, there is still ongoing archaeological research and programs at SunWatch today. This includes continual analysis of artifacts (pottery, stone tools, bone tools, textiles, and others), as well as artifact distribution and the locations of trash pits, houses, and other features of SunWatch. Continued research helps better understand the lives of the Fort Ancient peoples.2