Archaeologist Nears Major Discovery

Posted: May 10, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By David Driver

Back in 1974, Michael Johnson, BA ’68, found something unusual when digging in a garden in Chantilly, Va., and “things have not been the same since.”

His discovery happened to be a 4,000-year-old stone spear. “That got me going. I was hooked,” he says.

But archaeology was not on his radar when he was a student at Mason. Johnson, a member of Mason’s first four-year graduating class, alongside his wife, Gail, planned to be a history teacher. Instead, between 1968 and late 1973, he served as a U.S. naval officer on a guided missile test ship, and a tour as assistant intelligence officer on an admiral’s staff.

When he got out of the Navy, Johnson tested for and got a management internship with the federal government, which led to a civil defense planning job.

spear points
Some of the ancient spear points Johnson has discovered.

After finding the stone spear, the Northern Virginia native began working for Fairfax County as an archaeologist and preservation planner. “I took a one-third cut in pay for my current archaeologist position, and I have never regretted it,” says Johnson. He eventually earned a master’s degree in anthropology from American University.

“Pushing Back the Sands of Time” reads a poster on the wall above Johnson’s desk in his county office. Now senior archaeologist with the Fairfax County Park Authority, he has literally been doing just that for more than 30 years.

Johnson has excavated sites all over Virginia. He and his staff finished work last year at a 900-square-foot site in Chantilly, near Westfield High School, where they found pottery, arrowheads and spear points believed to be 8,000 to 9,000 years old.

During the 1990s, Johnson was also the chief archaeologist for the Archaeological Society of Virginia’s study of Clovis spear points, the earliest points then known to exist in the New World. The Clovis period, named for artifacts found near present-day Clovis, N.M., is generally believed to have been at least 13,000 years ago, or BP (before present). The Clovis people, sometimes called Paleo-Indians, are believed to be the first human inhabitants of the Americas.

archaeologist Michael Johnson
Archaeologist Michael Johnson at the Cactus Hill site.
Photos courtesy Michael Johnson

Through the Archaeological Society of Virginia, Johnson became familiar with the Cactus Hill site in rural Sussex County, about one hour south of Richmond. In the early 1990s, Johnson started doing research at Cactus Hill, along with volunteers from the Fairfax County Archaeology Program and the society, often spending weeks at a time on site.

By 1996, the artifacts found by Johnson and his crew included both halves of a broken spear point and blade fragments. Johnson also found stone tools some nine inches below existing Clovis-level artifacts. So Johnson and his colleagues are grappling with the possibility that Cactus Hill might be the oldest site in the United States and was inhabited by humans earlier than the commonly held date of 13,000 BP.

“I am more than happy to welcome any criticism of that site,” he says. “Either those early people didn’t survive in North America and disappeared, whomever they were, or there had to be something dating in between” the years 18,000 and 13,000. No human remains have been found at the site.

“It could be the biggest discovery in 10 years of Paleolithic studies,” Johnson says.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the spring 2007 issue of the Mason Spirit.

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