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Students Uncover The Ancient History Under Western Carolina’s Campus

Lilly Knoepp
Western Carolina students Kaley Kelly, Karen Biggert and Etta Furlow worked together to uncover artifacts.

Western Carolina University has been breaking enrollment records for years but as they expand they need to continue to remember their history. BPR digs into their recent archaeological finds. 


Under a hot sun, students wield tiny trowels and dust pans to unearth ancient artifacts under the supervision of their archaeology professor. 


They are digging just behind Norton Dorm on Western Carolina’s campus. Dr. Ben Steere is the director of the Cherokee Studies Program at the university. He says the school has been doing similar digs since the 1990s. 


“So what our students are doing both to learn about archaeological field methods but also to do a service for the university is to understand this ancestral Cherokee occupations out here before any construction takes place,” explains Steere. 


Western is planning to build new intramural sports fields on this land but it first must make sure this was never a burial ground before that happens. The whole campus stands on the site of an ancient village. Steere and his students are mapping the potential for archaeological finds beneath this field. 


Credit Lilly Knoepp
Pottery with complex stamps are from the Qualla Phase in the 1600s and 1700s AD, according to Dr. Ben Steere.

“Becca, do you have a bag handy? That has some good show and tell stuff. 

So we're on a part of the site here where the plow zone is really rich with artifacts,” asks Steere.  


The students established four sites to dig into more deeply. Steere says they have found artifacts from as far back as the Archaic period during 2500 BC. Becca Rhinehart finished her senior year at the end of the summer. She’s from Canton. She shows me one of the potentially Archaic objects that they found - an earthen hearth. 

“They are all organized in a way that makes sense so nature didn’t do that it was in an intentional way,” explains Rhinehart.   

Credit Lilly Knoepp
Students uncover an earthen hearth from the Archaic period in one dig site.

The students also found signs of homes built in the field, as well as over 1600 ceramic shards and over 1300 pieces of stone tools - that’s a lot of artifacts in an area the size of a football field.  Western Carolina will continue the archaeological study to figure out if it can move forward with construction without destroying any history. 


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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