CHAPEL HILL -- Since 1983, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill archaeologists and their students have excavated and replaced more than 2 million pounds of dirt in Hillsborough. Their purpose has been to help create a history of the Occaneechi and other Indians who lived along the Eno River before whites first settled the North Carolina Piedmont.
They did it mostly with shovels, trowels and dental picks.
The researchers, led by Drs. Vincas Steponaitis, Steve Davis and Trawick Ward of UNC-CH's Research Laboratories of Archaeology, wrapped up the fieldwork for their latest project last week. They say they have unearthed a wealth of information that contributes to the state's early history.
"Educating more than 200 undergraduates and graduate students in archaeological techniques has been one of the major benefits of this project, which is close to Chapel Hill and has served as a summer field school," said Steponaitis, who directs the laboratories. "Few better examples, if any, exist of the university meeting its goals of public service, education and research at the same time."
The Occaneechi lived along the Roanoke River in southern Virginia until 1676 when planter Nathaniel Bacon and his frontier militia attacked first the Susquehannocks, an Iroquois group that lived nearby, and later the Occaneechi, who had allied with Bacon temporarily, Davis said. Following a dispute with the militia over the spoils of victory and many deaths, the Occaneechi retreated south. By 1701, they had built homes by the Eno, where English explorer John Lawson visited them. Lawson wrote about their extensive provisions, which reflected their success in the deerskin trade.
"By 1714, ravaged by European diseases such as smallpox, they moved again to a settlement known as Fort Christanna on the Meherrin River," he said. "That early reservation was Virginia colonists' attempt to create a buffer of friendly Indians between themselves and hostile Iroquois raiding parties who harassed colonists along the western frontier."
Previous UNC work in the 1930s and 1940s identified a large settlement that was interpreted at the time as Occaneechi Town, but remains found at that site eventually indicated it was an earlier village, Davis said.
"In 1983, we explored that village further and were able to radiocarbon date it to around 1500," he said. "Then we found another nearby site that was occupied at the right time to be Occaneechi. Excavation of that village was completed in 1986."
In 1989, the UNC-CH archaeologists returned to investigate the area outside the Occaneechi village palisade and discovered a third, much larger palisaded settlement that covered almost a half acre. They have been excavating it ever since. That town, which they named the Jenrette site, may have been Shakor, which German explorer John Lederer visited in 1670.
"We uncovered evidence that this village was standing when the Occaneechi settled here sometime prior to Lawson's visit in 1701," Davis said. "Using that data, one of our tasks now will be to establish a tight time line for when the Shakori Indians and the Occaneechi inhabited the site."
Pieces of the puzzle they have uncovered by careful excavation include traces of houses, trash-filled storage pits, several small Indian cemeteries, broken pottery, discarded stone tools, glass beads, animal bones, plant remains and European artifacts such as rings and bracelets with Jesuit symbols. They also found ample evidence of early Hillsborough such as a colonial road to New Bern, pottery fragments, bottles, bricks and nails.
"We even found a spear point going back to the close of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago and evidence of other encampments before 1,000 AD," Davis said. "The last villages on the Eno at Hillsborough kept getting smaller, which probably reflects depopulation brought on by disease and the increased strife in the Piedmont during the late 1600s."
When they began, they were exploring an archaeological problem, specifically the impact of European contact on the native population, he said. They received much help from local people who consider themselves descendants of the Occaneechi and have in turn helped them in various ways. One result has been -- for educational and cultural purposes -- reconstruction of Occaneechi Town about a half mile upstream from the original site.
"We feel this has been a very successful project," Davis said. "It has been successful because of what we have learned about that period of our history and Indian history, that we have trained a lot of students, and that we have had remarkable support of the community."
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