By Martha Wallace
People have been living throughout North Carolina for at least 12,000 years. We know this because of the artifacts that were left behind by the native peoples. Native Americans have been creating points and tools for thousands of years, by flintknapping these tools out of stone. These tools and other artifacts are collected during archaeology excavations.
Thousands of excavations have been conducted through the years. Collections of artifacts (assemblages) are analyzed to determine typology (patterns and dates of manufacture in similar types of artifacts). These artifact types are compared to other assemblages in an area or region, discovering patterns and making connections on a larger scale. Seriation is also a useful concept in Archaeology. Seriation is the idea that layers of soil build up over time and the deeper you excavate the older the deposits of soil and the artifacts.
In Native American archaeology, types of points, arrowheads, tools and pottery are the best artifacts for defining the date of occupation on a site. In the Southeast, there is a specific typology and chronology for the various styles of points and dates of manufacture. This is useful in determining the age of a layer of soil, and hence the age of occupation. Over the years, Green River Preserve has yielded many examples of each of these types of points, dating from 10,000 BC to 500 AD.
Two of the most important characteristics for an archaeology investigation are undisturbed stratigraphy and establishing provenience for the artifacts. Stratigraphy and provenience can establish the context of an artifact (the location an artifact is found in relation to other artifacts and features in an area). This context allows for data analysis and typology, building a bigger picture of the function and significance of the artifacts, in relation to each other and other assemblages in the region. This all comes down to the soil being undisturbed by construction of buildings or bridges, digging deep below the surface.
Stratigraphy is created as soil builds up in layers over time. Soil is constantly being formed as organic material is decomposing. Rocks are breaking down into soil, both physically and chemically. Space dust is falling onto the earth at all times. Environmental factors such as wind and rain can move soil around.
As these layers of soil build, humans have dropped their tools, pottery, jewelry or other personal items near their home, at a camp site or along a path. Wooden structures have been abandoned, decomposing in the soil leaving behind a dark stain, called a feature. Fire rings have been abandoned and covered up with layers of soil. Archaeologists find these artifacts and features in excavations and help build upon the story of the Native American culture in North Carolina and throughout the world.
Provenience is vitally important in an archaeology investigation. Provenience is the location an artifact is found in an excavation, within the grid of an archaeology site. Every archaeology site is laid out on a grid, and units are excavated within that grid. When artifacts are found in situ (in the location of original deposit with known provenience and context), it means the artifact is in the place it was deposited years ago, the exact location of deposit. This context can help date the layers of the soil, providing a date for the occupation of a site and the function and meaning of the artifacts found.
Many artifacts are not found in situ, but rather on the surface along a path, in a river, or perhaps found plowing a field or during construction. These artifacts can be useful in building a general collection of an area. GRP has an exceptional general collection of Native American artifacts, including arrow heads, spear points, tools, axe heads, pottery, a gorget fragment, beads, pounding stones and nutting bowls. These artifacts range from 10,000 BC to 500 AD.
Most of GRP’s collection have been discovered by campers and staff, finding the artifacts at the GRP Farm and on hikes throughout the Preserve. These surface scatters are clues to the location of camp sites and villages in the area. Several of these surface scatters have undergone archaeology testing, revealing intact stratigraphy and great potential for future research.
There is an incredible amount of undisturbed land on Green River Preserve, thus intact stratigraphy. There have been some disturbances over the years, but less than 50 acres of the over 3,400 acres of GRP has been impacted. The excavations conducted thus far around GRP have yielded many artifacts and features with intact stratigraphy. A test unit in Girlsville revealed a Native American fire ring, 70 cm below the surface 3000 to 5000 years old, a camp site covered by layers of time.
Many more archaeological discoveries await at Green River Preserve. Join me in the next post, where we examine the phases of archaeology excavations, methods of excavation and excavations at GRP. Until then remember “Culture is Everywhere”.