The two tiny shards of copper unearthed from a centuries-old trash dump are not much to look at.

They are no bigger than the nail on a pinkie finger, and years of corrosion have left them misshapen and discolored. Most people would simply look past them.

But archaeologists who plucked them from a layer of common household debris about two feet underground at the Naval Weapons Station in Yorktown say the copper squares are crucial pieces of history. The shards have confirmed for them something they had long suspected: that trade with the earliest English settlers led to a rapid deterioration of Native American traditions and authority.

The metal's significance comes as much from where it was found as from what it is. The pieces were discarded in a common midden, or trash heap, rather than buried like jewels in the graves of tribal leaders. When colonists first arrived at Jamestown Island in 1607, the scarce metal was so highly prized by the indigenous tribes that only leaders of the highest rank and prestige were entitled to wear copper, fashioned into beads and throat pieces known as gorgets.

In revealing hyperbole, John Smith wrote that "for a coper kettle and a few toyes they will sell you a whole Countrey." The settlers survived largely because they could trade the smallest piece of scrap for a bushel of corn or other food.

Within a few months, however, English traders had flooded the tribes with so much copper that what had once been a mark of privilege ceased to have any value. Common folk had so much access to it that they could throw it away without a second thought. The tribes' refusal to trade for copper anymore led to the first conflicts.

"It's a familiar story told around the world," said Dennis Blanton, who led a dig at the station for the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research. "Native communities and institutions were destabilized as European goods were introduced. And that undermined the authority that had traditionally structured society."

As he displayed the copper pieces in a small shadow box at the weapons station, Blanton said the revealing rubbish was "preserved from ruin because it was protected on the heavily guarded ordnance depot.

"It's rich in artifacts," he said. "They're not plowed. They were buried after abandonment. It's a superlative place to do archaeology."

The dig in which the copper was found is one of many at the 9,500-acre Naval Weapons Station. The Navy contributes $100,000 a year for William and Mary archaeologists to locate and classify sites and advise which ones are the most important to protect from future development.

In the last five years, archaeologists have dug 25,000 holes, most no wider than dinner plates, on the grounds of the station along the York River. They have found relics at 366 locations, reflecting several eras and cultures.

At some of the sites, the archeologists have dug holes about six feet square.

Similar digs are underway at military bases and posts across the country. The Navy even has its own archaeologists.

"Yorktown is one of the premier areas," said Bruce Larson, who is assigned to look for hidden treasures at sites in the mid-Atlantic and the Caribbean, as well as at several Navy bases in Europe. "This is a weapons station. They imposed an explosive arc. It was too dangerous to build on. As a result, all over there is green space that's never been mucked about since the horse-drawn plows from the Revolutionary period."

For the leaders of Virginia's eight surviving Indian tribes, the discoveries provide a validation of the role their ancestors played. It also gives them further ammunition in their quest for federal recognition.

It has been difficult for the state's tribes to achieve acceptance as bona fide tribes, and the benefits that accompany it, because so many historical records were destroyed early in the 20th century by segregationists eager to legislate racial purity. In effect, they also erased Indians from much of the state's written history.

Three Native American leaders invited to attend the copper's formal unveiling Monday alluded to their past struggles and their current ambition.

"When I was a boy, the things we're talking about today were not discussed," said Frank Richardson, the Rappahannock representative on the Virginia Council on Indians, reflecting on the way things were 50 years ago. "Back then it was, 'What Indians? There are no more Indians in the state. We don't have to worry about them.'

"This is an opportunity to help us in the Virginia Indian community connect the dots and validate that there was a cooperative relationship between the Indians and the settlers. And we are still here."

The discoveries also served as a reminder of what has been lost.

The trash heap helped pinpoint the location of the Indian village of Kiskiak for the first time. The Kiskiaks were one of 32 tribes that formed the Powhatan Nation, which made it possible for the early settlers to survive.

The tribe's name turned up prominently on maps drawn by settlers and Native Americans. Today it still appears on historical markers in the woods around Yorktown and on local apartment complexes. There is even a golf course named after the tribe.

But the markers are as much as a mile away from the actual site. And the Kiskiak Indians became refugees, pushed out by the advancing English pioneers.

"I don't know of any Kiskiak descendants still living," said Wayne Adkins, second assistant chief with the Chickahominy tribe. "Nobody identifies themselves as such."

Dennis Blanton displays copper unearthed at the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station.