North Carolina: Students In An Archaeological Field School Make Discoveries Of Artifacts Among Local Indigenous Sites

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Archaeological evidence of pre-European indigenous settlements was discovered during the summer field school run by the UNC archaeology department.

Faculty Heather Lapham and Steve Davis headed the excavation team that uncovered hundreds of sherds, or shattered pieces of ancient North American pottery.  “Often, when you first find a sherd, it looks just like a suspiciously flat rock and it can be hard to tell if it’s something – but once you realize it actually is a sherd, you’re overjoyed,” Annie Veum, a junior history and archaeology major at UNC, said. 

Other items unearthed in the area were lithic flakes, which are stones used to scrap tools against, an arrowhead, a pile of charcoal, an ax head, and a piece of tobacco pipe bowl that may be dated to the early post-contact era.

In Veum’s opinion, working in the field is exhausting because of the long hours of physical exertion. But she described the experience as exciting and said it solidified her decision to devote the rest of her life to archaeology.  “Most of what you hear out in the field is voices; we talk to discuss what we’re doing, what we find, and simply to just entertain ourselves,” Veum said. “But the best sound is the shouts of glee when somebody finds something, and then you rush over to see and join in. There’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of finding something.”

Anthropology and archaeology double major Elizabeth Maguire plans to go into the field after she graduates from the University of North Carolina in the spring.  “For me, I’m just interested in how humans lived and how they once lived,” Maguire said. 

According to Davis, the field school team selected to dig at Duke Forest and Ayr Mount because of historical evidence of remains from prior settlements in the regions.  “The first site where we spent half of the field school was on property of Duke forest, right outside of Chapel Hill,” Davis said. “It’s a bottomland that’s heavily wooded and because of those conditions, it had never been examined before by archaeologists.”

UNC anthropology and archaeology undergraduate Bashi Hariharan said that they picked Ayr Mount as a result of previous UNC digs along the Eno River at Native American communities such as the Hogue, Wall, Jenrette and Fredricks.  Ayr Mount, a Hillsborough plantation mansion constructed in 1815, may be found there.

“I loved being out there and putting in the work to find cultural remains—it was one of the best feelings,” Hariharan said. “It was hard work, especially with the summer weather, but it was worth it ten times over when we found artifacts in the soil.”

According to Hariharan, her immediate emotion was genuine excitement and confirmation that the team’s efforts culminated in a finding.  “Touching something that someone else had handled, had made hundreds of years ago, was a feeling I’ll never forget,” they said. “History is written in records and books and told in stories, but to have something tangible in the palm of your hand that you know a human being touched is awe-inspiring.” 

According to Davis, who is the associate director of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina, he has been teaching field schools every summer for the last 40 years, with the exception of a few gaps due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  “Up until about 2000, that was our focus,” he said. “For the last 20 years, at least until the last couple of years, we worked on a slightly later historic era settlement of the Catawba Indian nation south of Charlotte, and those sites dated up into the early 1800s.”

During the course of his work, Davis has seen several shifts in technology. Digital coding stations, for example, have replaced optical transits for measuring and mapping. On the other hand, Davis said that the majority of the job is still carried out manually, using tools such as trowels and shovels for digging. “Students in the field learn things that they can be told about in the classroom, but until you’re in the field and experience it day in, day out, you don’t really appreciate what archaeological fieldwork is just really, really like,” he said.