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Archaeologists carefully dig for history at Town Creek Indian Mound

Lisa Worf
A team of professional and amateur archaeologists excavated the area around Town Creek Indian Mound in October.

People have lived in the region that includes North Carolina for about 13,000 years. We know about only a small fraction of that time through documents and buildings that remain. Most of that Native American history is buried under our feet.

A team of professional and amateur archaeologists unearthed some of that history in October at the Town Creek Indian Mound State Historic Site in the Sandhills. The items they found were small, yet important in piecing together the site’s history.

“This was an important place for your politicians to get together, to have debates and discussions, and pass rules. And then it was a sacred place as well,” explains Rich Thompson, who manages the Town Creek site about 50 miles east of Charlotte.

Picture a wide, flat clearing in the woods. What’s now known as the Little River flows many feet below it, providing fish to eat and lots of lush lands. A mound rises about 20 feet with a thatched building on top.

Town Creek Indian Mound.JPG
Lisa Worf
Town Creek Indian Mound would draw dignitaries from outlying villages for political discussions. The mound includes a reconstructed structure.

Thompson says only a select few American Indians could gather on the mound and those included dignitaries from other villages. Several feet below the mound a few hundred people lived out their daily lives, surrounded by a stockade of tall posts.

“You're constantly cooking food to keep the people fed. You're going to see craftspeople weaving baskets, making clothing, a flint knapping stone into tools that can be used for hunting,” says Thompson.

This is thought to be the scene around the year 1300. Most of that is known through what archaeologists have unearthed here over the past 85 years. Now, it’s a state historic site where school groups come to learn about life then.

The site within the stockade has been reconstructed, but not much is known about the area surrounding it where this team is digging. David Cranford of the state Office of Archaeology tells students who visited while the dig was underway that they’re looking for artifacts like pieces of broken pottery. They’re also looking for discolorations in the soil that show where posts that formed structures once stood or mark pits where people threw trash. They found two of those pits on the week-long dig.

“Believe it or not, we love finding ancient trash!” Cranford tells the kids. “Because the things that you eat every day, the things that you make every day and throw away, those are the things that can tell us a lot about how you lived your lives. And that’s what we’re interested in as archaeologists.”

The dig  

Lisa Worf
Team members push excavated dirt through screens to find any small artifacts.

A couple of archaeologists kneel, scraping away the soil in a series of meter squares that correspond to a GPS grid. Several other members of the team push dirt through screens and bag any possible artifacts to study later. There are a lot of broken pieces of pottery and stone flakes. But one of the most telling finds is so small the screens barely caught it – a glass bead. The kids lean in as Cranford balances it on his palm.

“It's actually red. It's made out of two different kinds of glass. It's got a clear glass middle and then red glass wrapped around it,” says Cranford.

“It looks like a BB,” says one student.

They found three beads like this. He tells the kids to imagine thousands of these sewn onto clothes and jewelry. Sometimes a stitch would break and one would drop to the ground. What’s so significant about them is that they were made in Europe during the 1700s and were traded between colonists and American Indians. The team also found a bunch of European smoking pipes from the same time. They help show the site has a long history.

Lisa Worf
Archaeologists find three beads like this that were made in Europe in the 1700s.

“The interpretation that most people hear and that is kind of standard is that the mounds were built about a thousand years ago or so, and then people were here for a few hundred years after that,” says Mary Beth Fitts, an archaeologist with UNC-Chapel Hill.

These finds help dispel those notions and piece together a fuller story of the people to whom this site was special.

“We may not be able to give a precise name to the groups that were here and that left the beads, but clearly by telling the story, we're kind of emphasizing that this place wasn't abandoned, it was still cared for, and the people still had a connection to it,” says Fitts.

A rotating team of about a dozen people came each day throughout the week to help unearth that history. Many, like Chuck Richardson, are members of the North Carolina Archaeological Society.

“I said, ‘Hot dog, we have a dig we can do.’ So I took a week's vacation and came,” says Richardson, a circulation manager for the newspaper in Wilmington.

He points to a broken piece of pottery that has a curved pattern imprinted on it. That decoration made it look nice but also helped hold it together.

“That's probably the neatest thing that I found,” says Richardson.

Besides artifacts the team bagged to take to a lab, they also mapped many features they couldn’t take with them like those discolorations in the soil that may give archaeologists an idea of what structures people built there.

Cranford says it’s clear people long had a connection to the site and that continues.

“We recognize that there are people around whose ancestors are still here and we try to be respectful and try to add to the story as best we can,” says Cranford.

The hope is the ground around Town Creek Indian Mound will continue to yield information that with some analysis will tell a more complete history of this region.

Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.