Archaeologists Take the Dust Off Human History
Of course it’s about finding the answers. But just as intriguing and purely enthralling, when it comes to artifacts, are those questions left unanswered—the dirty details, complex emotions and tortured circumstances that we’ll never come to know about the spear points and cannon balls we’re still digging up after all this time. This arrowhead, this bullet. Did it slay beast, or fellow man? Did it defend families from danger, or did it tear them apart?
“Imagining the lives of people associated with the objects was really what captured my interest, and still does,” said archaeologist Jane Eastman.
Dirt and Dissertations
Weren’t we all amateur excavators in our early years, prospecting backyards for worthy additions to our prized collections of sparkling mica, whimsical snail shells, and vintage Coke bottles?
Some folks never lose the bug, and minor excavations develop into lifelong weekend hobbies. Others take it even further, making it their life’s passion. They become geologists or paleontologists or archaeologists. The latter is an important branch of anthropology—the study of humans and their cultures, past and present.And no, archaeologists don’t spend all of their time hunting for objects to beef up museum displays. Rather, archaeologists have a story to tell. Through their findings, archaeologists support theories about human cultures with hard evidence, and as with any scientific experiment, it’s important that these findings are repeated. And repeated. Many more hours are spent under the fluorescent beams of a laboratory than under the sun at a field site—hours spent classifying, analyzing, interpreting. There are no instant results, and gratification comes only after months and years of work.
Jane Eastman loves that part. The meticulousness, the intellectual demands. Actually, she loves everything about the field. “I love being outside and all the physical aspects of it,” Eastman said. “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do my whole life.”
Eastman, an anthropology professor and director of Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., found her calling on the open road; she grew up in a family that traveled the country by RV. “Most of my early interest came from traveling with my family throughout the U.S. and visiting museums, mound sites, ruins of cliff dwellings in the Southwest, and the like,” Eastman said. “My family used to camp on a piece of property with archaeological sites on it, and later, our home was on the edge of a farm with several sites.” She also borrowed a book of her sister’s, James Michener’s The Source, “that featured an excavation and told a story based on an artifact recovered from each level of the site”—taking the reader on a historical journey, from the days of the early Hebrews to the Crusades to present-day Israel and the Middle East conflict. Eastman glanced at the book’s cover, noticed a woman in the illustration, and “I thought, ‘that’s me,’” she recalled.
Women didn’t always see themselves represented in the archaeology field. But as early as the nineteenth century, English women were granted government permissions to excavate in Egypt and Greece, write researchers Martha Sharp Joukowsky and Barbara S. Lesko. Sarah Belzoni, wife of explorer and early archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni, accompanied her husband to Egypt in 1815, and they lived together in the Tomb of Seti I. She traveled alone at times and, because she was a woman, was able to secure rare interviews with native women; she later authored a 42-page chapter on women of Egypt, Nubia and Syria for her husband’s book. But despite nearly 200 years of work by women in archaeology, academia continues to be dominated by men, and overall women earn less than men in academic jobs. “Cultural resource management firms, like the one I worked for while in graduate school, is an arena where women have been more successful at both getting jobs and establishing their own companies,” Eastman said. “On a personal level, I’ve been very fortunate during my career to have been given lots of opportunities, both as a student and a professional archaeologist. Since the first summer I took the field class in archaeological excavation, I have always been able to find a job working in the discipline. I’ve never felt that it made any difference that I was female. I suppose I beat the odds.”
Eastman earned a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research interests include Native American societies of the Southeast, particularly gender relations, pottery analysis, and culture contact studies. She has worked actively on efforts to preserve the Cherokee language and served as president of the North Carolina Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association.
“Working and living in Western North Carolina has offered me the opportunity to have Cherokee colleagues and students,” remarked Eastman. “That opportunity takes the practice of archaeology to a whole other level. It makes it more personal and constantly reminds you to be respectful of the site, its former occupants and their descendants.”
Relic Hunters and Amateur Collectors
People were digging in the dirt long before it could earn you a paycheck, though, and the simple joy of unearthing something manmade, but old, maybe real old, and refreshingly, something other than a cheeseburger wrapper or a Bud Light can—well, that’s enough for most folks. Of course, there are plenty of relic hunters who scrub historic sites clean for their own personal profit, and it’s safe to say this group and the archaeological community don’t always see eye to eye.
Jackson Bebber, raised on the backside of an apple orchard in the Ellendale township in the North Carolina foothills, found himself employed at the age of 11. He had one job and one job only, and that was to chase away apple poachers from his neighbor’s trees. So during the inevitable periods of downtime, Bebber was free to hunt—for projectile points. Spear points. Arrowheads. Thousands and thousands of years old, from Indian civilizations that settled along the Yadkin River Valley. “I hunted arrowheads as much as I wanted. Then I’d eat an apple,” Bebber laughed. “If you can imagine a better way to spend a childhood, then I would be surprised.”
Bebber found arrowheads by the dozens, one after another, and some points were fashioned out of non-native materials such as obsidian, a volcanic rock that must have traveled to the area from afar. “What fascinated me most about them was how little people knew about them and how wide open the story was. It’s really unbelievable how little we know about pre-history. We just don’t have a great handle on it,” said Bebber, who studied history in college. Perhaps his greatest find was a perfectly intact drill, a piece of stone shaped into a narrow, elongated point that Indians used as a tool in making clothing and other supplies. “Every notch in it was perfectly aligned,” he noted.
Now a law student living in Chapel Hill with his family, Bebber claims he finds projectile points wherever he goes in North Carolina; well actually, it’s more like they find him.
“I find them everywhere, without even meaning to,” he said. “Once you’re dialed in, you can’t help but look for them.” The man can’t seem to escape these ancient artifacts; they come looking for him at night, even. “My only recurring dream I’ve had for years is about projectile points, arrowheads. I find them all the time in my head. I find them in pieces and put them together,” Bebber shares.
But Bebber isn’t holding on to some vast collection—he couldn’t even recall what happened to that exquisite flint drill, for instance. Rather, many of his treasures ended up in the hands of friends and relatives. “I always felt like…I shouldn’t try to hold on to all of them; to get someone else interested, that was even more fun,” he explained. “In fact, at times I left stuff in the ground, just for somebody else to find.” Bebber is passing on his hobby to his three daughters, who spent a recent weekend at the beach uncovering fossils and sharks’ teeth. “My kids have actually gotten the digging bug—they just dug through these piles of dirt all day.”
Unlike hobbyists, many professional relic hunters are looking for artifacts to peddle in pawnshops and on eBay. Fearful that relic hunters will disturb, damage or wipe out sites of archaeological significance before they can be studied, archaeologists are at times reluctant to publish the locations of sites of interest. “Disclosing information on the location of such sites presents a serious problem, as there are some relic hunters who choose not to seek permission to hunt sites and do so clandestinely and illegally, for no motive other than profit. This situation’s unfortunate result is that valuable and compelling information cannot be published, for fear of site location reaching the wrong hands,” notes a contributor to the 2006 book Huts and History. But, the author notes, archaeologists have much to learn from the strategies and tactics of relic hunters.
Relic hunting, like archaeology, is far from a random activity; searches are well planned and researched in advance. Armed with a metal detector and other tools, relic hunters often try to establish contacts with local landowners, not only to seek permission to hunt on their property, but also for invaluable information on a locality’s history. Relic hunters find that searching on construction sites increases the effectiveness of metal detectors: “It is common knowledge among relic hunters that, once an area has been cleared of vegetation and soil overburden, even sites once considered picked clean or collected for years can still yield artifacts and intact features.”
Digging Southern Appalachia
In early 1992 in Jackson County, N.C., site preparation had already begun for the construction of a new Cullowhee Valley School building for grades kindergarten through eight. Joel Hardison, an anthropology student at nearby Western Carolina University, often collected artifacts at the site, and on one visit there he noticed a dark pit partially exposed by a bulldozer. The disturbed earth, upon further inspection, revealed pottery, charcoal, and bone. David Moore, archaeology crew supervisor at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., was alerted to the find, and he in turn notified the Jackson County Schools superintendent that additional features and human burials were likely to be present. North Carolina law prohibits the disturbance of unmarked human remains.
The machines grinded to a halt as Moore and a host of volunteers from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia launched a hurried excavation of the area, which encompassed 71,100 square feet and yielded 132 features and 1,020 postholes.
“A lot of it had been destroyed,” Moore noted, “[but] even though it was conducted under salvaged conditions, over a limited number of weeks, with no real funding, at the same time we got some really valuable information.”
Jane Eastman and students at Western Carolina University were among the volunteers assisting with the dig.
A significant feature discovered at the site was a circular trench about 30 feet in diameter, thought to have been part of an earth lodge found beneath mounds. From outside, the structure would have looked like a hill with a doorway cut into it, said Eastman. “We’re not quite sure how they functioned,” Moore said. Eastman said mounds have been associated with Mississippian culture, which became prominent in the Southeast and in limited areas of North Carolina. “They’re not common.” The Mississippian phase, according to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C., extended from 900 A.D. to 1500 A.D., overlapping with the Woodland Period (1000 B.C. to 1600 A.D.).
The earth lodge is part of a palisaded (surrounded with a wall or fence) village that likely dates to 700 to 900 A.D., Moore wrote to the North Carolina Archaeological Society in 1992.
Most of the artifacts recovered at the site were shards of pottery. Pottery is attributed to a specific cultural phase or time period according to intricate patterns imprinted in the vessels using a carved wooden paddle, which was slapped against the vessels while the clay was still wet, Eastman explained. While the patterns of some pottery recovered at the site are consistent with early Qualla phase (1500 to 1850 A.D., also known as the Historic Period Cherokee), pottery found near the earth lodge was different. The grooves of the patterns are more intense and narrow, associated with the Napier culture more common in Georgia. Some believe the Napier people could have lived in the Western North Carolina area before migrating south. “The degree to which these people were ancestors to Cherokee, we’re unsure of that,” Moore said. “It’s just rare to find this material in that area.”
Also on the site was another palisaded village, dating to 1500 to 1650 A.D., associated with the Pisgah phase, a phase of the South Appalachian Mississippian period. The presence of a large Pisgah settlement in Cullowhee is interesting, Moore said. Pisgah villages are more common in the eastern mountains near Asheville, N.C. than they are further west, he noted. “Archaeology works by gathering new information and replicated information,” he said. “In this case, we replicated some information…about what was known as the Pisgah culture. But we didn’t have good examples of that in that area.”
Charred plant remains were found here and at the other village site, and when analyzed, the remains will allow researchers to compare diets from the different time periods.
Finally, the construction site also featured artifacts from an early nineteenth century Cherokee homestead, which Moore said probably dates to about 30 years before Removal—when the U.S. government forced Cherokees to move west along the Trail of Tears.
And some spearheads collected date as far back as the Archaic Period (8000 to 1000 B.C.).
“So there’s a lot of time depth represented in these remains,” Eastman said.
Mica with evidence of cuts was among the artifacts, and it’s believed that skilled craftspeople may have traded mica during the Pisgah phase, said Eastman. Soapstone, a mineral shaped into containers for the transfer of hot liquids, was found with apparent ridges from scraping. Soapstone occurs in a small area within Jackson County, N.C. “We can still use soapstone for this…because it holds heat so well,” Eastman said. “People would have been drawn to this area to find these resources.”
Twenty years later, there’s still no comprehensive report for this impromptu, unfunded excavation. “We were there for over two months, which seems like a lot,” Moore said, “but there were years worth of work that could have been done there.”
Moore’s current work focuses primarily on the Burke culture associated with the North Carolina foothills during the late prehistoric and early Historic Cherokee years. This work includes excavation at the Berry site in the Upper Catawba Valley in Burke County, N.C. The site is a large Native American town occupied from about 1400 to 1600 A.D. that also featured a Spanish fort.
For the past six years, Eastman has been working in the town of Hayesville, N.C., to preserve a Cherokee site, and her students helped reconstruct a Cherokee homestead there. Western Carolina alumni aid in presenting interpretative and living history programs in Hayesville, and the resulting tourism has helped revitalize the community.
“It’s sort of come full circle,” Eastman says.
— By Anna Oakes