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Field school students discover archaeological artifacts at local indigenous settlements


The annual Summer Archaeology Field School, run by UNC's archaeology department, excavated a site in Duke Forest and one at Ayr Mount in Orange County this year. Photo courtesy of Bashi Hariharan.

The summer field school through UNC's archaeology program found archaeological evidence of pre-European indigenous settlements while excavating sites in Duke Forest and on the grounds of Ayr Mount.

The team, led by professors Heather Lapham and Steve Davis, excavated hundreds of sherds — broken shards of ancient North American pottery — and other historical artifacts. 

“Often, when you first find a sherd, it looks just like a suspiciously flat rock and it can be hard to tell if it’s something – but once you realize it actually is a sherd, you're overjoyed,” Annie Veum, a junior history and archaeology major at UNC, said. 

She said other things they found out in the field included lithic flakes, which are stones used to scrap tools against, the occasional arrowhead, lots of charcoal, an ax head and a piece of tobacco pipe bowl that can be dated to the early post-contact period.

According to Veum, being out in the field is a dirty and tiring experience due to hours of hard physical labor. Although, she said that the experience was exhilarating and made her realize how much she wanted to pursue archaeology for the rest of her life. 

“Most of what you hear out in the field is voices; we talk to discuss what we’re doing, what we find, and simply to just entertain ourselves," Veum said. "But the best sound is the shouts of glee when somebody finds something, and then you rush over to see and join in. There's nothing quite like the exhilaration of finding something."

Elizabeth Maguire, a junior UNC student majoring in anthropology and archaeology, said she hopes to become an archaeologist. 

“For me, I’m just interested in how humans lived and how they once lived,” Maguire said. 

According to Davis, the field school team chose to excavate in Duke Forest and Ayr Mount due to historical evidence of remains from previous settlements in the areas.

“The first site where we spent half of the field school was on property of Duke forest, right outside of Chapel Hill,” Davis said. "It’s a bottomland that’s heavily wooded and because of those conditions, it had never been examined before by archaeologists."

Bashi Hariharan, a junior UNC student majoring in anthropology and archaeology, said they chose Ayr Mount due to past excavations of Native American settlements by UNC along the Eno River such as the Hogue, Wall, Jenrette and Fredricks sites. 

Ayr Mount is a plantation house built in 1815 in Hillsborough. 

“I loved being out there and putting in the work to find cultural remains—it was one of the best feelings,” Hariharan said. "It was hard work, especially with the summer weather, but it was worth it ten times over when we found artifacts in the soil."

Hariharan said her first reaction to their team having excavated a sherd was pure joy and proof that all the team’s efforts materialized into a discovery.

“Touching something that someone else had handled, had made hundreds of years ago, was a feeling I’ll never forget,” they said. “History is written in records and books and told in stories, but to have something tangible in the palm of your hand that you know a human being touched is awe-inspiring.” 

Davis, who is the associate director at the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC, said he has taught field schools every summer for the last 40 years, with the exception of a few COVID-19 pandemic pauses. 

“Up until about 2000, that was our focus," he said. "For the last 20 years, at least until the last couple of years, we worked on a slightly later historic era settlement of the Catawba Indian nation south of Charlotte, and those sites dated up into the early 1800s.”

Davis has seen several changes in technology throughout his career. For example, surveying techniques using optical transits for measuring and mapping have shifted towards digital coding stations.

However, Davis said most of the work is still done by hand, through the use of trowels and shovels for digging.

“Students in the field learn things that they can be told about in the classroom, but until you're in the field and experience it day in, day out, you don't really appreciate what archaeological fieldwork is just really, really like," he said.

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