Ancient Artifacts Found on North Carolina Campus

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.

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