Archaeology of Coastal North Carolina, Part 2



Part 2

The Problem

(Page 1) It may be stated categorically that very little specific knowledge is available about the cultural succession of aborigines in the whole of coastal Carolina. Even more specifically, it may be said that the bordering lands of the Carolina Sound - that great stretch of Albemarle, Pamlico, Croatan, and Roanoke Sounds - are terra incognita to the archeologists. Hence, as a concomittant of the development of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Park area, it was determined that a part of that program would be to investigate the prehistoric occupation of the Outer Banks and the neighboring lands.

Within the area of investigation the National Park Service had established a National Historic Site, Fort Raleigh, on Roanoke Island. One of the most intriguing mysteries of the early days of our nation is the disappearance of a group of colonists that had established themselves, and Fort Raleigh, in 1587. This is the famous "Lost Colony". Since the sixteenth century all effort to find any trace of these people has been fruitless.

Thus the archeological program became two pronged. One point was to delve into the Indian past and reconstruct an occupation of the region from the earliest times until the dispersal of Indian culture by white men. Secondly, evidence of the Lost Colony was to be sought. It (Page 2) must be stated at the outset that in this latter endeavor there was no success. The colony is still lost. In the former, some contributions to knowledge may be claimed.

Field and Laboratory Methods

Although the area involved in this study is not large, it was far too great to make a complete survey of it. The intent of the field work was to obtain representative sites throughout and, where circumstances suggested favorable results, to make test excavations in order to establish the chronological sequence of cultural events. Most of the field work, thus became a surface-collecting survey.

On some previous occasions, collections had been made from a few sites within the area. In 1938 when it became evident that it might be desirable to establish a seashore recreational facility here, preliminary investigations were made by National Park Service personnel, Dr. A. R. Kelly and Dr. Charles W. Porter, III. These investigations, although limited in scope, gave some indications of the archeological content of the region. The field reports and sherd collections, deposited at Ocmulgee National Monument, Macon, Georgia, have been incorporated into this study. Mr. Joffre Coe, Laboratory of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, made some minor excavations near Buxton on Hatteras Island. Mr. Talcott Williams made certain excavations near Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island and dug some Indian mounds nearby. These latter could not be located in 1954-55 and, thus, their archeological context could not be ascertained. Mr. J. C. Harrington's investigations at Fort Raleigh were principally concerned with the Fort itself. In the course of extensive trenching in the vicinity of the Fort, considerable material of Indian origin was encountered but nothing suggesting an Indian habitation site.

(Page 3) A preliminary investigation of the Outer Banks area was made in August 1954. Mr. Edward Kibbe, Northwestern University, then a graduate student in anthropology at Louisiana State University, served as field assistant. The entire summer of 1955 was devoted to a more thorough examination with excavations at key localities. Mr. Fred Hadleigh-West was assistant during this period. During the ensuing academic year, the pottery and other artifacts collected were analyzed and comparative studies begun. These analyses and comparisons were aimed at establishing cultural sequences rather than furthering distributional patterns for certain pottery types.


Many persons helped in many ways to bring the field work to completion. The field assistants, Mr. Kibbe and Mr. West, were good companions as well as able-bodied aids. The former desideratum is probably more important than the latter. Mr. Allyn Banks, Superintendent of the Cape Hatteras Seashore Area and Mr. Jean C. Harrington, Regional Chief of Interpretation, National Park Service, were constant in their material and moral assistance. Other NPS personnel made the field work pleasant in many ways, notably Mr. Baum, Mr. Dough, Mr. Haltman, and Mr. Lamb. At Fort Raleigh, Mrs. Meekins, Curator, and Mr. A. Q. Bell, of Roanoke Nursery, were most cooperative. At Bath, N. C., Reverend A. C. D. Noe was especially helpful. Mr. Joffre Coe, Laboratory of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, was a source of much helpful comparative data and an inspiration for scholarly endeavor in the final report.

To the owners of sites where test excavations were made, thanks (Page 4) are gratefully extended: Mr. and Mrs. John Fletcher, at Bandon (Site A 12, Figure 2); Mr. and Mrs. John Whalen, Wide Water (Site P 1); Mr. and Mrs. Nacy Midgette, Cape Creek (Site H 1); and Mr. and Mrs. E. Hoskins, Powell's Point (Site A 1). To other persons far too numerous to thank individually appreciation is collectively expressed. Without such assistance, a study of this nature could never be begun.


(Page 5) Millions of years ago the coastline from Long Island to Mexico stood far inland against the foot of the mountains. Probably the amount of sediments poured into the ocean by streams exceeded the sinking of the ocean bottom. Thus the coast was gradually extended seaward. The sediments laid down during this time, now called the Tertiary, are generally easily-eroded sands, silts, and clays. They have been greatly dissected far inland but closer to the present coast the land surface is often very flat. This great belt of sediments, in North Carolina about one hundred miles wide, is known as the Coastal Plain.

About one million years ago some event, probably meteorological, or atmospheric, initiated an ice age or a period of growth of the polar and alpine ice. Only guesses may be hazarded about how much ice accumulated but recent studies have established that the amount was of the order of millions of square miles in extent. This, of course, lowered the ocean level and caused rivers to increase their gradients (their mouths were lower) and streams such as the ancestral Pamlico and Albemarle cut deep into their valleys. Again, another change caused the ice to begin to melt and the ocean level to rise. Stream gradient was reduced so that streams began depositing their load as their velocity was decreased. Great floodplain deposits were laid down in the valleys so recently cut by the more steeply-inclined streams. But through some cause (perhaps the same as before), the glacial ice began to expand (Page 6) again. This was accompanied by another lowering of ocean level, another cutting of the stream through its new floodplain and the formation of terraces along the stream flanks. This process was repeated two or three more times. Because the interior of the continent has been gradually rising throughout all this time, four terrace levels are discernible above the floodplains of some streams. Of course, in some areas all the preceding terrace remains were removed by later stream activity. The last great deposition is most obvious, since subsequent stream action has not been so destructive. The broad flat lowlands between Pamlico River and Albemarle Sound belong to this last stage, with remnants of another terrace rising above it.

When the ocean level fell some 350 feet the last of the four times (or maybe five), a tremendous stretch of sandy beach was exposed along the eastern margin of the continent. In the Carolina region a series of characteristics and conditions involving low-lying land and prevailing southeasterly winds began the formation of giant sand dunes. A ridge of sand forms the spine of Currituck Peninsula; it may date from one of the earlier ocean retreats and returns. Hoophole Ridge, west of Pungo Lake, may be another of the older-vintage dune lines (Figure 1). The dunes and flatter sand deposits that form the string of islands and continental appendages known as the Outer Banks probably date from the last glacial retreat and its concomitant sea level rise.

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Today the Banks are in a constant state of modification. They are the victims of a capricious designer who lops off a skirt edge here and there, adds to the plumage of a highland, cuts in a waistline, or gives a Gibson Girl fullness over night. Inlets are made by a single storm yet the littoral currents are constantly tending to move them landward and (Page 8) southward. The prevailing winds are tending to shift the large sand dunes generally westward or landward. The dunes cover vegetation of all description and have been successfully arrested in movement only by heroic efforts. All of these conditions must have obtained when the Banks were first visited by aborigines, and it is upon this kind of scene that early Indian inhabitants made their appearance.

There is but slight evidence that the Banks were once heavily forested throughout. Certainly there has been change in given areas, especially where dunes are active, as around present-day Nags Head. Also, in the straightening of the coastline, an activity of wave action and the resulting littoral currents, headlands or projections of any sort with or without vegetation will tend to be reduced. Thus tree stumps, such as at Wash Woods and near Corolla, will be left as reminders that the land once stood farther seaward at these spots. Wimble Shoals (Figure 1) may be a drowned remnant of a headland that once projected seaward, a headland or caps more prominent than Cape Hatteras in the sixteenth century (Quinn, 1955, p. 789). To this day on Roanoke Island one encounters the tradition that "when my father (or grandfather) was a boy, you could walk to Manus Harbor with a twelve-foot plank to cross the wet places . It is doubtful if this were ever done, but surely one could have waded across in many places before Trinity Harbor inlet closed and thus deflected all the Albemarle water down Croatan Sound and Roanoke Sound. An interesting corroboration of the shallowness of the sounds may be seen in the types of flat-bottomed vessels fabricated by the Union in the Civil War in their efforts to invade these waters. Of course there are charts available for the last century that document changes in soundings and shoreline; they indicate that the waters of Croatan Sound are now deeper than a century (Page 9) ago.

The archeological story has been affected most by changes in the Sound side. Here it was that aborigines dwelt, away from the blasting winds and shifting sands of the beach. Here it was, too, that modern populations settled, moving out to the beach side of the Banks only within recent decades. At the northern end of Roanoke Island land has been removed at such a rate that it seems evident any Indian village that once existed there has been removed. All along the shore known as Northwest Point cypress trees stand more than one hundred yards from shore with their root systems six feet above high tide mark, indicating that the surrounding earth in which they grew has been washed away. On Hatteras Island within the life-time of one individual the headland known as Indian Town Hill has been reduced by more than two hundred feet. Certainly many "sites" recorded in this survey are now wholly within the water edge of the Sound with no actual midden remaining. Such sites attest the encroachment of the Sound on the land. It is during the winter when the wind-lashed waters of the sound do most damage.

With this changing physical world in mind some other components may be examined. Presently the mean annual temperature of the Banks is 62o F. and there is little to suggest it has not been this for centuries. There is a possibility that the Gulf Stream has not always stood so far off shore (twenty-one miles east of the Cape) as it does today, and if it were closer some centuries ago the climate may have been somewhat warmer. Certainly it was not colder. The average rainfall is about forty-eight inches so that a humid subtropical climate prevails. This would be ideal for maize agriculture except that the soil is (Page 10) everywhere so sandy with little nitrogenous content. The probability is that Indian inhabitants were finding living a bit difficult long before the added burden of English settlers came upon them. When the accounts of Hariot and Lane describing the bountifulness of Roanoke Island and environs are read, it must be borne in mind that these descriptions were largely for propaganda with the ulterior purpose of influencing either more colonists or Crown aid or other assistance.

Despite the restricting factor of narrow width and sandy wastes, the Banks were once rich in game. Even today one can hardly venture off the main thoroughfare in Buxton Woods on Hatteras Island (Figure 1) without seeing some of the rather small-sized deer that seem to be increasing in number. The deer bones found at the Cape Creek site on Hatteras Island were from larger animals. Other game animals may have been utilized by the Indians but their importance as a food source pales to insignificance when compared with deer. Fish were obtained in a variety of ways from the Sound, and in areas where easily available, shell fish, oysters, and clams were an important food. In fact, in some sites such as C2 on Colington Island, oyster seems to constitute the majority of the shell remains in the midden and animal bones are almost absent. Aboriginal man had not been introduced to the idea that a balanced diet was necessary for good health.

The Banks landscape that presented itself to the view of the aborigine of, say, the twelfth to fifteenth century, was that of a series of long low islands, in part sandy and in other parts covered by trees and other vegetation. The islands are often narrower than a mile although in Buxton Woods and Ocracoke stretches of more than two miles in width may be seen. The ocean side of these islands was a series of large to (Page 11) small sand dunes fed by the sands of the littoral zone. The Sound sides were marshy or hilly in spots as the dunes migrated across the islands. The agricultural possibilities must have seemed limited even to the Indian arrivals. Yet the need to expand into unoccupied lands was easily evident at this early time. We may be sure that the early aboriginal inhabitants found the picture, as a whole, inviting and promising.

Copyright 2001
Carolina Algonkian Project