SunWatch Village (2301 West River Road, 937-268-8199) can be reached by leaving Interstate 75 at exit 51. Go west on Edwin C. Moses Boulevard, which becomes Nicholas Road after crossing the Dryden Road / South Broadway Street intersection. Cross South Broadway and turn left onto West River Road and continue one mile south to the site.
The Archaeological Park at SunWatch is a National Historic Landmark, and through reconstructions as well as museum exhibits a visit to the site gives an excellent idea of Indian town life in the last centuries before European contact. Fort Ancient peoples then occupied the central Ohio River Valley (from what is now southeastern Indiana east to modern day West Virginia) and practiced intensive farming. Several houses and poles are re-erected on the 800-year-old remains, based on exact post mold locations discovered during archaeological investigations. (Post molds are marks in the soil left behind by rotted wood posts.)
The quality of the houses, with their wattle and daub walls and thick thatched roofs, suggest a remarkable level of comfort. The modern name “SunWatch” is derived from the relationships among pole locations, certain house doorways, and the positions of shadows cast by the rising sun at different times of the year, apparently the society’s way of marking out a calendar for agricultural and ceremonial purposes. Native American events, gatherings, and ceremonies are held regularly at SunWatch.
Eight hundred years ago, about two hundred American Indians lived settled lives here beside the Great Miami River, where the city of Dayton now stands. They built comfortable houses, raised abundant crops, and measured time with shadows cast from a forty-foot pole in the center of their town plaza. In the 1970s, the city of Dayton was planning to expand its neighboring sewage plant at the site, and that’s when the Booneshoft Museum of Discovery got involved. Site archaeologist Andrew Sawyer:
So the museum got permission from the city to conduct salvage excavations, beginning in 1971, the idea being that, Salvage what you can, because at any time we’re going to come in with our bulldozers and tear the place up and put some sewage ponds in there.
The excavations uncovered the pattern of an elaborate village. So fortunately, the sewage ponds were put somewhere else.
And beginning in the early 1980s, they started to think about the possibility of presenting this to the public. And so they said: as archaeologists, we can look at all these holes in the ground and make sense out of them. But it’s not that easy for the general public, so what about, in some of these 800-year-old post holes, we put a post back in the ground? And we put all of the posts that supported a house, back in the ground, and we rebuild the house?
The first house was finished in nineteen eighty-two. The perimeter fence, the central array of sun-poles, and several more houses have been rebuilt, with the greatest possible historic accuracy: each new post is set in an ancient hole. The Dayton Society of Natural History maintains the village, a museum, and a demonstration garden, and offers many special events.