The Archaeology of North Carolina

A Brief History of North Carolina Archaeology

The beginning of archaeology in North Carolina dates back to the last century. Early archaeology here was closely tied to the scientific debate raging in academic institutions and museums over who built the mounds found across eastern North America.

During the 1880s excavations in the western part of the state, including the Peachtree Mound in Cherokee County, the Garden Creek mounds in Haywood County, the Cullowhee Mound in Jackson County, and the Kituwah, Nununyi, and Birdtown Mounds in Swain County led Mann Valentine, an avid Virginia collector of artifacts, to conclude that the mounds were built by people ancestral to the Cherokees. This was at a time when only a minority of scientists were convinced that the ancient earthworks were built by Native Americans.

Unfortunately, Valentine became the victim of an elaborate hoax that tainted his otherwise sound archaeological interpretations. Since Valentine purchased artifacts from other collectors people began making their own versions of relics they thought would be most appealing to the wealthy Virginian. When the fraud was subsequently exposed, and embarrassed Valentine left the field of archaeology.

Fake artifacts - Mann Valentine
Fake artifacts from western North Carolina. These carved steatite sculptures of a bear eating a man (left) and an angel (right) are a few of the many fake Indian artifacts that were purchased by Mann Valentine in the North Carolina mountains (courtesy of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology).

At the same time, Smithsonian Institution archaeologists were exploring mounds across the country attempting to settle the debate over who built the mounds. Cyrus Thomas of the Smithsonian used evidence of European trade goods in the Nelson Mound and Nelson Triangle in Caldwell County to support his argument (published in 1890) that the mounds were built by recent ancestors of North America's Indians. After the turn of the century, the Museum of the American Indian - Heye Foundation excavated various sites in western North Carolina.

The first book on the history and prehistory of North Carolina's Indians was published in 1947 by the Reverend Douglas Rights, with two chapters devoted to archaeology and antiquities. Rights, an avid artifact collector was first president of the Archaeological Society of North Carolina when the group was organized in 1933. But it was a young teenager at that meeting, Joffre Lanning Coe, who soon led North Carolina into the era of scientific archaeology. In the 1930s, Coe, who was in close contact with the University of Chicago's prominent archaeology program, lay out a strategy for surveying the state. From then until his retirement from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1982, the enthusiastic Coe dominated the state's archaeological endeavors.

Joffre Coe 1966 at Coweeta Creek site
Joffre Coe operating a bulldozer in 1966 at the Coweeta Creek site. Coe was the dominant figure in North Carolina archaeology for almost 50 years (courtesy of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology).

Using clues from early explorers accounts North Carolina's archaeologists initially attempted to find 17th century village sites. Aided by Depression era relief programs, which provided large crews, numerous North Carolina archaeological sites began yielding information to modern professional techniques. After World War II efforts shifted to finding stratified sites. North Carolina sites such as Hardaway, Doerschuk, and Lowder's Ferry allowed North Carolina's cultural periods to be put in order. With the advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s, it became clear these sequences covered nearly ten thousand years.

Town Creek Mound committee 1937
Members of the Frutchey Mound (Town Creek Indian Mound) Excavation Committee in 1937: (left to right) Professor James B. Bullitt, UNC; Professor Wallace E. Caldwell, UNC; Joffre L. Coe, UNC; Herbert M. Doerschuk, Archaeological Society of North Carolina; Harry T. Davis, North Carolina State Museum; and Rev. Douglas L. Rights, Archaeological Society of North Carolina (Photo by Coe, 1937, from Coe 1995:15).

Since the 1960s, with the growth of cultural resource management programs, extensive surveys and numerous excavations have progressively fleshed out the story of North Carolina's native past. Time Before History presents an summary of what is currently known in a form informative to the lay person as well as the professional archaeologist.

©2010 UNC-RLA