Lake Phelps Dugout Canoes


Ancient Pots and Dugout Canoes

Indian Life as Revealed by Archaeology at Lake Phelps

By Dr. David Sutton Phelps

North Carolina Parks & Recreation
N.C. Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources

James B. Hunt, Jr.
Jonathan B. Howes


Each year in September, Pettigrew State Park celebrates Indian Heritage Week with a series of displays of Native American artifacts and demonstrations of their customs in honor of the original inhabitants of our state. This celebration at the park is possible because of the recovery of a remarkable set of Indian artifacts at Lake Phelps.

In the spring of 1985, an extensive forest fire in the vicinity of Lake Phelps was fought with water pumped from the lake, resulting in a lowered water level - much below what had been the normal level for some time. Dry weather during the remainder of that year and in succeeding years kept the lake level below normal. In the fall of 1985, fishermen began reporting artifacts that were now visible on the lake bottom through the shallow, crystal clear water. A number of these, including partial and whole clay pots and stone objects, were collected and deposited at Pettigrew State Park. Artifact collection continued and in November of 1985, the first of a number of dugout canoes was discovered by park personnel. It was that discovery, along with the unusually well preserved artifacts, that focused attention on the archaeological potential of Lake Phelps and initiated a cooperative research project with the goal of understanding the secrets of Lake Phelps' past cultures. The on-going research program is a joint effort by the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, East Carolina University, and the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. (Page 1)

At this writing, hundreds of artifacts spanning 11,000 years have been collected and 30 dugout canoes have been reported, qualifying the collection as the largest number of canoes in the southeastern United States still in association with the sites where they were manufactured and used. The Lake Phelps relics have significantly increased not only our knowledge of ancient canoes, but also our understanding of how people in the past used the lake and its surrounding environment. This pamphlet provides a summary of the information presently available from the research.

The Lake and Its Archaeological Sites

Lake Phelps is located in Pettigrew State Park in Washington and the very western fringe of Tyrrell counties, North Carolina (see map on back cover). This shallow 16,600-acre lake, the second largest natural lake in the state, is characteristic of a group of oval-shaped lakes and pocosins known as "Carolina Bays" distributed along the Middle Atlantic and Southeastern coastal plain. Explanations for the origin of these natural features have ranged from meteoric showers to peat burns, but current geological research suggests that Lake Phelps may have formed in response to processes of coastal plain land form development sometime within the last 40,000 years. The lake, like others of its type, was a landlocked internal drainage basin until the last decades of the 18th Century, when plantations were established and canals were cut from the lake to the Scuppernong River, draining the adjacent peat bogs to make them suitable for farming. Prior to the canals, the lake level fluctuated in response to rainfall and temperature. (Page 2)

Beginning about I 1,000 years ago, people came to the lake to take advantage of the available food resources. They camped along the low ridges on the northern and western shores, made and used the dugout canoes; and followed their daily routines of hunting and gathering, generation after generation. As the generations passed, the artifacts they broke, lost or threw away accumulated in their living areas as evidence of their presence at Lake Phelps. Through time, the lake rose and fell, alternately eroding the shoreline and re-sorting the sediments. As the lake eroded the living sites, the artifacts and the canoes abandoned along old shorelines were covered with sediments deposited by the higher water level. When the lake fell, the gentle wave action removed the sediments from the canoes and artifacts, exposing them as it did in 1985. No doubt this cycle has repeated itself numerous times in the past, but no one noticed or recorded it.

Scale drawing of the 37' canoe.

Most remarkable among the artifacts from Lake Phelps are the ancient canoes. To date, 30 have been reported but only 23 of these have been measured and studied. The canoes are scattered along the northern and western shores of the lake adjacent to the archaeological sites where they were made, used and eventually abandoned. A detailed study of the shape and size of the canoes and techniques used to manufacture them is still in progress, but all appear to have been made by first splitting a cypress log, then alternately burning and scraping the interior until the desired shape and size was obtained. In this manner, two canoes could be made from each log. (Page 3)

Indians burning out cypress logs to make dugout canoes.

Sketch of a dugout canoe after
suctioning sediment away from
the bow to permit measurements.

Some of the canoes are nothing
more than fragments while others
are essentially intact - preserved
by the acidic water and their long
burial in the lake bottom sediments.
The end (bow and stern) shape of
the canoes varies, and the length
of the longest canoe found so far is
37 feet. Four of the canoes have
been preserved and two are on
display at Pettigrew State Park.
Nineteen of the canoes have been
dated by the radiocarbon process,
and they range in age from 2400
B.C. to A.D. 1400, correlating
closely with the known age of
the other artifacts from the lake.

(Page 4)


The canoes and other artifacts from Lake Phelps represent a sequence of occupations at the lake which correlate with the general cultural history of northeastern North Carolina. That sequence is shown on the accompanying chart. What is known of the artifacts and lifeways of each phase in the sequence is described over the following the pages. (Page 5)

The Earliest Inhabitants

The earliest evidence of human presence at the lake consists of two small spear points of the Palmer type generally dated to the Late Paleo-Indian period (8000-9000 B.C). These artifacts may relate to small hunting and gathering camps near the lake during a time of colder climate, coniferous forests and fewer food resources.

The Early (8000-5000 B.C) and Middle (5000- 3000 B.C.) Archaic period is equally poorly represented in the Lake Phelps collections by a Kirk and a Morrow Mountain spear point, respectively. These, like the Paleo-Indian points before them, may be the remnants of temporary camps or hunting expeditions passing along the shore. During the Archaic period, the climate began to warm, resources became more abundant and in the later years of the period, the lake was more frequently used.

Paleo-Indian and
Archaic period spear
points and a spear
thrower weight.

The Late Archaic

In the Late Archaic period (3000 -1000 B.C.), the climate of the region felt much like today's weather. It supported forest types with cypress along the shore, mixed deciduous forest on the ridge above the shore, and typical peat bog growth beyond and away from the lake. Fish, game and edible plant resources (Page 6) were more abundant and the archaeological evidence indicates more frequent use of the lake area. Hunting activity is represented by spear points, a spear thrower weight and bifacial blades. Cooking vessels made of soapstone suggest longer stays at the lake, perhaps for a season of food gathering activities. The three earliest dugout canoes belong to this period - the oldest dating to around 2430 B.C. Their presence signals a longer occupation of the sites during this time, and possibly the increased importance of fishing.

A Croaker Landing flat bottom vessel fragment
with wavy line incised decoration.

Between 2000 B.C. and 1500 B.C. ceramic vessels began to replace the older soapstone containers along the Atlantic coast. The shapes of these early ceramic containers were relatively standard flat-bottomed tubs and bowls with two lug handles near the rim. The tempering material the potters added to the clay varied, however, from region to region. At Lake Phelps, the early ceramic ware is named Croaker Landing and has lumps of sundried clay added to the paste. The Croaker Landing pottery, either plain or decorated with incised lines or sometimes cord-marking, is typical of the northeastern North Carolina and Southern Virginia coastal region. The Lake Phelps specimens of this ware aided in defining the southern part of this distribution and have been designated the (Page 7) "Pettigrew variety" of Croaker Landing ware. Soapstone tempered Marcey Creek pottery, more typical of the Virginia-Maryland coast, is represented by a few sherds indicative of exchange with more northerly regions.

The Early Woodland

Two canoes, dated to 770 B.C. and 900 B.C. belong to the Deep Creek phase of the Early Woodland period (1000-300 B.C.). One of these canoes, shown on the front cover of this pamphlet was found with fragments of a ceramic pot approximately half inside and half outside the canoe. Apparently the vessel was dropped and hit the edge of the abandoned canoe. The ceramic vessel, which is of the type Deep Creek net impressed, and with the cord impressions from the string wrapped paddles, represent two of the main surface finishing techniques in the Deep Creek phase. Present also are ceramic vessels with fabric impressions on the exterior. The frequency of artifacts in the Deep Creek phase is approxixnately equal to that in the preceding Late Archaic period, and this phase is seen as a continuity in settlement types and adaptation from that period, although artifact types indicate new northern influences. (Page 8)

Deep Creek cord marked pot with charred esterior.

The Middle Woodland

The time of the most intense prehistoric use of Lake Phelps occured in the Mount Pleasant Phase of the Middle Woodland period (300 B.C - A.D. 8000). The settlements of this phase are found along the northern and western shores where family groups came to establish seasonal bases for fishing, hunting and collecting wild plant foods. Most of the ceramic vessels and fragments in the collection belong to this phase. Vessels of various shapes, including two miniature ones, have surface treatments of cord marking, net impressions and fabric impressions. Some exhibit other forms of decoration such as incised lines in a chevron pattern. Another remarkable characteristic of not only the Mount Pleasant pottery, but of 90% of the ceramic vessels from Lake Phelps, is the retention of thick deposits of charred material on the vessel exteriors - indicative of their use for cooking.

Polished stone gorgets of the Woodland period.

Stone artifacts include some excellent examples of polished stone bar gorgets with holes drilled near their centers, and triangular arrow points typical of the Middle Woodland period. Eleven of the dugout canoes belong to this period, with dates ranging from 140 B.C. to A.D. 420. Eight canoes in the time span between A.D. 110 and A.D. 340 have radio carbon dates approximately 20 to 30 years apart. It is intriguing to assume that this recurrence at regular intervals represents the actual life span of a cypress dugout. If such is the case, one canoe would serve a family for one generation before becoming waterlogged or decayed. Further (Page 9) experiments may help us understand the life expectancy for a dugout and, as the dated samples of canoes from lake Phelps increases, the temporal sequences and periodocoty of production.

Mount Pleasant fabric impressed pot
with incised chevron decoration.
Collington plain (left) and fabric impressed (right).
Minature pots and boat-shaped dipper from
Mount Pleasant and Collington phases.

(Page 10)

The Late Woodland

The Colington phase of the Late Woodland period (A.D. 800-1650) is the ancestral culture of the Carolina Algonkians, the Native American people first met in this region by 16th century European explorers. The people of this phase who came to Lake Phelps to hunt, fish and collect plants were probably members of the Moratoc society whose territory included the south side of the Albemarle Sound from the Scuppemong River to the mouth of the Roanoke River. The Colington phase occupation at Lake Phelps is less intense than that of the previous Mount Pleasant phase, probably due to a more efficient agricultural system and less need to supplement food supplies at inland locations.

Only three of the dugout canoes belong to this phase, one from the western shore and two from the northern shore with dates of A.D. 1400, A.D. 1200 respectively.

Similarly, there are fewer pottery vessels and stone tools. The typical pottery of the Cohngton phase, tempered with fragments of shell mixed in the clay, (Page 11)

Unusual artifacts uncovered at Lake Phelps.
A polished stone object with 18 drilled depressions
and a groove (left); a gorget made from a fabric
impressed sherd (center); a grooved ceramic object
(upper right); and an amorphouse fired clay piece
(lower right).

was finished with fabric impression or parallel linear grooves made by a carved wooden paddle or simple stamp. Sometimes incised decoration was applied over the surface finish. Vessel shapes included conoidal pots with inverted rims; small bowls; jars with four oppositely opposed castellations or raised areas on the rim; miniature vessels and boat-shaped dippers, among others. Small triangular arrow points, some made of tan jasper and typical of the Colington phase, were also found.

The remnant poles of fish weirs, or traps, found at the lake bottom, may also be products of Colington phase fishing activities.

So far there is no evidence that Lake Phelps was being used by the Carolina Algonkian people at the time permanent European colonization began in the 17th century. By the time the lake was "rediscoveredí by Colonials in 1755, it was perceived as a pristine environment.


The archaeological, historical. and natural resources of Lake Phelps and Pettigrew State Park represent a unique opportunity to study human use of a particular environmental niche (Carolina Bay) from the lake's origin up to modem times. The remarkable preservation of wooden materials in general and the canoes in particular, the wealth of other artifacts from the shoreline and the possibility of undisturbed deposits on the shore all underline the importance of the Lake Phelps sites in understanding the cultural ecology of this and other such locales. (Page 12)


Pettigrew State Park
2252 Lake Shore Road,
Creswell, NC 27928
(252) 797-4475
Email: [email protected]

Illustration Credits: The line drawing of the canoe on the front cover was done by Richard Lawrence of the Underwater Archaeology Laboratory, Division of Archives and History. The two line drawings of canoes in the text were done by Kaea Morris, graduate student in Maritime History, East Carolina University. All photos are by the author, Dr. David S. Phelps, Professor of Anthropology, East Carolina University.

The above article was published as a brochure for Pettigrew State Park by Dr. David S. Phelps. Thanks to Sidney H. Shearin, Superintendent of Pettigrew State Park and the author Dr. David S. Phelps for permission to reprint.

Copyright 2002
Carolina Algonkian Project, All Rights Reserved