The Archaeology of North Carolina

North Carolina Archaeological Time

The Contact Period in North Carolina


Contact, Interaction, and Cultural Change in the Piedmont

Between 1936 and 1941 the University of North Carolina's first Siouan Project searched the Piedmont hoping to locate and identify historic Siouan villages described in the 17th and 18th century. Results were inconclusive. A return to this research four decades later, under UNC's second Siouan Project, had much better success in exploring the question of what happened to the state's native inhabitants as European explorers, traders, and settlers moved into the North Carolina backcountry during the last half of the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century.

Specifically, the second Siouan Project defined five Contact Period phases in the central and north central Piedmont.


Mitchum phase (1600 - 1670); Jenrette phase (1600 - 1680); and Fredricks phase (1680-1710).


Middle Saratown phase (1620 - 1670); and Late Saratown phase (1670 - 1710).

This success finding historically documented villages in the north central Piedmont has allowed development of a detailed cultural chronology allowing archaeologists to study processes of cultural change during the Contact Period.


In the timespan from A.D. 1600 to 1670, only a few glass and brass/copper beads found their way into the Piedmont villages. These items were exchanged through native intermediaries operating the traditional trade networks. During the 1670s, however, trade changed dramatically as Virginia traders began making regular trips into the backcountry searching for new markets.

The intensification and spread of the peltry trade is directly reflected in sites of the 1670 to 1710 period (the Late Saratown and Fredricks phases). Literally thousands of beads and other ornaments, but few tools and weapons, moved into the Sara sites on the upper Dan River, while guns, knives, hatchets, beads, and trinkets were obtained in quantity by the central Piedmont Occaneechi, who controlled the flow of goods to the more remote Sara. After 1680, with the Occaneechi stranglehold broken, the Sara gained access to weapons and other tools.

European tools and ornaments were used alongside of their counterparts made with traditional technologies, rather than replacing them. But the flow of goods had a greater impact on social structure. Whereas authority and prestige had been accorded primarily to women in the earlier seventeenth century, men's routes to status were enhanced when trade in European goods greatly increased.

Intertribal Relations

Intertribal conflict and warfare certainly preceded the arrival of Europeans. However, hostilities increased dramatically when Indian slaves and deerskins could be traded for the kettles and guns of the Europeans. Bones scarred by scalping and bullets are clear evidence of hostilities. Conflicts often took the form of raids from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania.

Whereas in the past blood feuds and revenge fueled the fires of conflict, new motives and new ways of conducting warfare were introduced. Unprecedented opportunities to exert economic and political power were available by controlling the flow of trade and acquiring weapons.


Archaeological evidence has shown that the new plants and animals brought by Europeans were virtually ignored by most Piedmont Indians during the Contact Period. Peaches and watermelons were widely planted, often reaching native communities well in advance of the Europeans themselves, but the traditional trinity of native crops (corn, beans, and squash) remained the mainstay. Likewise Old World animals were seldom raised.

As was the case with tools and trinkets, only those items that did not require a re-organization of the traditional ways of doing things were incorporated, and these were used alongside of, not in place of, familiar resources.


Without a doubt, the most devastating result of the European arrival on the North Carolina Piedmont was the introduction of new diseases for which the native populations had little or no resistance. Smallpox, measles, and other viral diseases swept the region, killing and disabling thousands. The devastation was accelerated during the late 1600s by increased population movements and expanded intertribal contact as native people adapted to the economic and political changes brought about by the trade.

Spread of Old World diseases depended on a number of local and regional factors. Population density, community size, and degree of contacts all affected the timing, speed, and scope of disease events.

In the north central Piedmont of North Carolina, there is no evidence of epidemic diseases until the arrival of Virginia traders in the second half of the seventeenth century. Only in the Late Saratown and Fredricks phases is there evidence of diseases in the form of dramatic increases in the numbers of graves and changes in burial practices.

©2010 UNC-RLA