Ancient Artifacts Found on North Carolina Campus

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
March 7, 2005
The discovery of 2,000-year-old artifacts on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is prompting archaeologists to rethink their theories about the early presence of Native Americans in North Carolina.

The artifacts include spear points and pottery fragments. Their location indicate that small bands of roaming Indians made a seasonal home on ground that later became the site of the nation's first state university, said Steve Davis, associate director of UNC's Research Laboratories of Archeology.

"They were living as bands of hunters and gatherers, moving seasonally as different resources became available," Davis said. "They were mostly gathering nut crops, wild seeds, and greens. And they were hunting. Probably their primary source of protein was the white-tailed deer."

The artifacts date back to a time before Native Americans began forming tribes. The Indians probably roamed central North Carolina in bands of 20 to 30 people, Davis said.

The artifacts were unearthed during a routine excavation on the UNC campus. Their discovery may fill a puzzling gap in scientists' understanding of Native American life in that part of the state.

Early Hunters

Archaeologists have found spear points indicating that Indians hunted in the area during the Middle Woodland period, an era which dates from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500.

But, until the new discovery, researchers hadn't found artifacts such as pottery fragments intermingled with spear points from the same period. Such mixing would indicate the region was a seasonal home for the nomads.

Brett Riggs is another UNC archaeologist who worked on the dig. He said the absence of archaeological evidence of Native American domestic life in the area nearly prompted scientists to conclude that Indians only occasionally passed through the area.

"We'd assumed that the reason so few Native American sites had been documented was because there wasn't a lot of occupation during that period," Riggs said. "What this has made us aware of is that we may have just been looking right over the top of the evidence [of occupation] without recognizing it."

The archaeologists think the reason they had not found similar pottery fragments elsewhere in the same area was because the fragments are very fragile and easily destroyed by plowing and exposure to weather.

The newly discovered pottery fragments survived on the UNC campus because the ground where they were found was never broken by a plow. The earth was also protected by buildings from the earliest days of the university, which opened in 1795.

The fragments were from clay pottery the Native Americans made during their encampments on the site of the present-day UNC campus.

The Indians wrapped cloth around wooden paddles. They used the paddles to press air bubbles out of the clay while it was still damp. The cloth kept the paddles from sticking to the wet clay, and left behind a decorative imprint when the pot was fired.

The projectile points found with the pottery fragments were used with a spear-throwing device known as an atlatl, which preceded the development of the bow and arrow. Before the UNC discovery, archaeologists had thought that Indians' use of pottery came long after their use of the atlatl.

Delores Hall, deputy state archaeologist for North Carolina, said the discovery likely will lead to some revisions of the history of Native Americans in the state.

"This could change our interpretation of all kinds of things," Hall said. "It opens up a big can of worms. We may need to rethink a lot of things, which is not a bad thing to do."

Surprising Excavation

UNC officials ordered the ground excavated as a preliminary phase of work to expand the building that will become the Center for the Study of the American South. That original building, known informally as the Love House, was constructed in 1887 as the home of UNC professor James Love.

Before the Love House was built, the land had been the site of the home of the university's presidents. The presidential house was built around 1810 and burned down in 1886.

The excavation that uncovered the pottery fragments was done in July 2004, and UNC archaeologists have been analyzing their finds and writing a report since then.

Tony Boudreaux is a UNC archaeology graduate student from Biloxi, Mississippi, who worked on the excavation. He said the realization that his research colleagues made an important find came after they'd been digging at the site for several weeks.

"After we got all of the 19th-century artifact deposits, the pieces of pottery shards started getting bigger," Boudreaux said. "That indicated that there would be preserved Indian deposits. That was like a bonus. We had a really cool 19th-century site, then, underneath that, bam, a great little turn-of-the-first-century site."

More Finds

The dig also revealed artifacts from UNC's early days, including wine bottles and a 19th-century ceramic spittoon.

Riggs said the other artifacts represent "the hobnobbing and schmoozing activity that would go on around a university official's home in the 19th century. It's a snapshot of university life at the upper end of the social scale at the president's house from about 1810 through the Civil War."

The archaeologists also found a possible reminder of a romance that raised a few eyebrows in Chapel Hill soon after the Civil War ended in 1865. At the time the town was occupied by federal troops.

During the occupation, the U.S. Army officer in charge of the occupying force became infatuated with the daughter of David L. Swain, who was president of UNC from 1835 to 1868.

The officer became a frequent guest at Swain's home, and many Chapel Hill residents were upset that a member of the recent enemy was courting the president's daughter.

That officer may have left behind a memento of the romance. Among the artifacts recovered during the recent dig was a brass button that came from the coat of a Civil War-era U.S. Army officer.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

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