Excavated Village Unlocks Mystery of Tribe's Economy

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
November 14, 2005
A recent excavation by archaeologists has cast new light on how the Catawba Indians lived two centuries ago in a village near the North Carolina- South Carolina border.

The discovery of pottery fragments and other artifacts indicates that the Catawbas had found a niche in the early American economy.

"The perception of the Catawbas has been that they were in a perpetual state of decline," said University of North Carolina archaeologist Brett Riggs, who worked on the project.

"The archaeological record counters that view. They were a very vibrant society. They had a declining population, but they were meeting that challenge in very creative ways."

The three-year dig, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, was conducted on private property near Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The village consisted of small log houses on about 40 acres (16 hectares) where a few hundred Catawba Indians lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The archaeologists found clear indications that by the time this village was active, the Native Americans there didn't support themselves solely with the traditional occupations of hunting, fishing, and farming. Instead their livelihood also came from more modern sources.

"By now they were landlords, leasing much of their reservation to white settlers," said Steve Davis, another UNC archaeologist who worked on the dig.

Living History

In the 1930s Isabelle Baker was the first scholar to study the village as a student at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Baker visited the site in 1935 with Samuel Blue, a former chief of the Catawba tribe.

Blue related the description of the village that had been given to him by his mother. Baker wrote about her visit and interview with Blue in a 1935 letter to a UNC archaeologist.

The log cabins were about 12 feet by 16 feet (3.5 meters by 5 meters), with walls that were "about shoulder height," Baker wrote. "The roofs, also of logs, were gabled. The logs were covered with rough boards and the cracks daubed with mud. The huts had dirt floors."

Seventy years after Baker's visit the UNC archaeologists found fragments of pottery and indications that many horses were in the village.

"We think they may also have been involved in horse trading and the production and sale of pottery," Davis said.

The Catawbas modeled much of their pottery after British ceramics, creating a natural market for their goods among European settlers in the area.

Catawba pottery became highly desired in the Carolinas. "The wares of the Catawbas were in great demand around Charleston," Riggs said. "Cooks asserted that certain dishes—such as okra soup—couldn't be made without an Indian pot."

The excavation also revealed other glimpses of the Catawbas' daily lives. A UNC graduate student from Wisconsin made a surprising discovery while examining the remains of a chimney.

"I found this little piece of Catawba pottery, a cylindrical thing, jet-black, and it had a little orange ring around it," said Mark Plane, an archaeology doctoral student at UNC.

Plane was puzzled until he found another fragment that apparently was part of the cylindrical piece. "I thought, It looks like an ax head," he said.

Then he realized he'd found the remains of a miniature ceramic tomahawk that had once been a child's toy.

It was a powerful moment. "I'm imagining a little kid, tapping on the chimney with this," Plane said. "It broke, and the kid discarded it there. I'm feeling a moment in someone's life."

"Race Against Time"

The site of the old Catawba village is near the rapidly growing city of Charlotte. The archaeologists said they were lucky to be able to excavate such an important site so close the hustle and bustle of new development.

"It's a race against time," Davis said. "Charlotte is rapidly moving in that direction."

The property that was excavated, however, is owned by the Katawba Valley Land Trust in Lancaster, South Carolina.

The land is "relatively secure and safe" from encroaching development, Riggs said.

"I applaud UNC for doing this work," said Lindsay Pettus, president of the Katawba Valley Land Trust. "It was much needed."

Pettus said the relatively modest cost of doing an archaeological excavation pays a big dividend in the knowledge that it produces.

"We can double our knowledge about ourselves and the history of the Catawba River Valley," he said.

But other property around Charlotte that probably also holds Catawba artifacts "could go under the bulldozer at any time," Riggs said.

"We approached the work with a sense of urgency," he said.

The archaeologists realize that development in the archaeologically rich region is inevitable, Davis said, and they aren't trying to stop it.

But they would like to find out what was there 150 years ago before shopping centers and subdivisions start going up.

"The thing we fear is that a lot of sites will be destroyed before we ever know about them," Davis said.

"We don't want to scare off anyone from letting us do research on property that they control. We don't want developers to think that if we uncover something, it's only going to create problems that cost developers money."

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