Archaeology of the Ossary at the Baum Site, Page 2



On September 24, 1974, the then recently formed North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission visited the Baum site in Currituck County (Figure 1) for an orientation session in prehistoric archaeological sites as part of the coastal environment. Following a slide lecture during their meeting in Elizabeth City, the Commission observed an excavation opened at the site to demonstrate stratigraphy, the structure and content typical of coastal sites, and principles and techniques of archaeology. An equally important aspect of the orientation at the Baum site was observation of the type and extent of natural erosion affecting archaeological sites in the Coastal Zone. The excavation opened for the demonstration to the members of the Commission was three meters from the edge of the bank along Currituck Sound in 1974 (Square P in Figure 2); in 1980, the edge of that excavation was being exposed by wave action. This pattern of extensive erosion is typical not only of the Baum site, but most known archaeological sites adjacent to the sounds and estuaries of the North Carolina coast, and is gradually destroying these prehistoric and early historic cultural resources as well as removing the land from modern uses.

Continuing erosion at the Baum site was responsible for exposure of the ossuary which occasioned the request for an emergency grant under the Coastal Area Management Act, subsequent award of the grant, and this report, summarizing results of the research, submitted in fulfillment of the grant requirements.

In late May, 1980, Mr. Milford J. Baum, owner of the Baum site, telephoned the author to report that human skeletal remains were being exposed by erosion along the bank at the site. The site was visited on May 25, taking time from a research project on Roatioke Island, and the situation observed and evaluated. Nothing further could be done at that time because of prior research grant scheduling and commitments. In June, erosion from recent storms had exposed more of the burial and a crew was dispatched to the site to build a temporary bulkhead around the eroded edge of the burial to protect it from further damage. At the same time, the top outline of the burial pit was traced in a 4-meter-square excavation, plotted, and the soil replaced.

On June 18, a priority category I grant application for Coastal Area Management Act funding to salvage the ossuary was submitted by Currituck County to the Office of Coastal Management. The project, entitled "Cultural Resources Salvage of the Baum site", specified sub-contracting the work to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, East Carolina University, with the author as project director. Verbal notification of funding approval was received during the second week in July and salvage of the ossuary was accomplished during the week (Page 1) of July 12-19, 1980, followed by processing and analysis of data and report preparation. The author, as project director, directly supervised all aspects of the research. Assistance in the field work was provided by K. C. Hartsell and H. K. Sydow, East Carolina University, and S. H. Hogue and L. Navey, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Coastal Area Management Act funding of the project was matched by the Currituck County Board of Commissioners and the Currituck County Historical Association.

Some supplementary funding for the work also derived from a current heritage Conservation and Recreation Service grant to East Carolina University administered through the North Carolina Division of Archives and History.


A brief survey of the North Carolina coast in 1955-1956 by William Haag (1958) recorded eight archaeological sites in Currituck County. Four of these sites were located in the vicinity of Waterlily and the others clustered around Point Harbor and Powell's Point near the southern end of the Currituck peninsula. After Haag's study, Currituck County received no further professional archaeological attention until the Baum site, 31CK9 in the North Carolina Archaeological Survey records, was recorded and tested in July, 1972, by East Carolina University. That initial survey of the site was, like the present research, in response to a report of human bone being exposed by erosion along the beach. Test excavations revealed the presence of intact cultural features and uncovered a section of the first typical Algonkian ossuary to be identified in the North Carolina coastal area. In August, 1973, using a volunteer crew of East Carolina University archaeology students, the ossuary was completely excavated and removed for study. After preliminary analysis of the 1972-1973 data, the importance of the Baum site and the potential for other, similar sites along the eastern shore of the Currituck peninsula was recognized, and a research design for the locality was devised.

The first stage of the design was a more comprehensive survey of parts of the county, particularly emphasizing the eastern shore of the peninsula and the relationship of settlement patterns to environmental factors. Of specific interest were sites the locational choice of which indicated a major exploitation of marine food resources while also permitting adaptation to upland environments. That survey project, supported by a small grant from the U.N.C. Marine Science Council in 1974, resulted in location and recording of twenty sites in addition to those recorded by Haag in Currituck County. Eleven of those were found between Point Harbor and Waterlily (Figure 1), (Page 2) seven others located between Coinjock and Tull Bay, and the remainder on Knott and MacKay islands and in the interior of the county.

Figure 1. Distribution of Archaeological Sites in the
central section of the Currituck peninsula. (
Page 3)

seven others located between Coinjock and Tull Bay, and the remainder on Knott and MacKay islands and in the interior of the county. The study has been suggested as a model for surveying such cultural resources in the Coastal Zone (Phelps 1975:78). Test excavations in a number of sites produced evidence of intact cultural material and context, confirming their potential for further research. Among those tested was the Baum site. Already known to have excellent potential for contextual information, the test excavations during that project were designed to sample stratigraphy, cultural features, and site dimensions, in conjunction with the tests, a controlled collection was accomplished to establish accurate surface dimensions of the site, and surface topography was mapped (Figure 2). During the 1974 project, a burial adjacent to the Burial 1 ossuary was excavated; the burial had been observed in 1973, but insufficient time remained in that field season to remove it.

From 1974 to 1980, other research priorities took precedent and little work was done in Currituck County until the present emergency.

Description of the Site and Its Cultural Sequence

The Baum site is located just north of the Town of Poplar Branch (Figure 1). The site area encompasses approximately 5 acres, as determined by subsurface tests and surface extent of cultural material, on the north side of the forested swamp created by a small Class I stream tributary to Currituck Sound. The eastern side of the site lies along Currituck Sound (Figure 3), and the northern boundary is a canal draining a farm pond on the western side of the site (Figure 2). Soil on the site is classified as Norfolk loamy fine sand (Perkins, et al. 1928), and the present surface topography is gently rolling with one prominent east-west ridge and another paralleling the shore of the site. Maximum elevation is a little over one meter (approximately 4 feet) above present mean water level. Both elevation and surface topography have been modified by borrowing of shell from the site in the past, the continuing rise in sea level, and continuing plowing of the site for agricultural use. The 1974 topographic mapping data shown in Figure 2 reflect the current rather than the original site surface configuration.

Shoreline erosion, enhanced by rising sea level and the general exposure of the site area to northeasterly storms, is the most destructive process of those currently affecting the site. There is no way of actually determining how much shoreline has been lost since the original occupation, but a reasonable estimate would probably exceed 300 meters (1000 feet). A control stake (Reference Point 1 in Figure 4), installed during the 1973 excavations, provided a short-term measure of site erosion. In 1980, that stake was exposed in the bank of the site, just prior to falling onto the beach, and was used to plot and orient the 1980 work. (Page 4)

Figure 2. Plan of the Baum site, 31CK9, Currituck County. (Page 5)

While the extent of erosion varies along the shore, 3 to 6 meters of the site have been lost in the immediate vicinity of the ossuary excavations, obtained by plotting the top of the bank along the shore in 1974 and 1980 (Figure 4). The 1972-1974 excavations have almost completely eroded away. The process typical at the Baum site is low bank erosion (Bellis, et al., 1975:18-23), which affects vast areas of shoreline in the estuarine zone. Exposed cropland areas, such as the Baum site (Figure 3b), experience a higher rate than those where natural vegetation still exists, averaging a loss of 3 to 8 feet (.9 to 2.4 meters) per year. From the one-spot measurement at the Baum site, shoreline erosion for the past 6 years has been 2.4 feet (.75 meters) per year, a little less than the overall average for the region.

Previous work at the Baum site has been primarily testing and salvage, resulting in determination of spatial definition, basic stratigraphy, and context potential. From the previous excavations (Figure 2), a preliminary cultural sequence for the site has been reconstructed. While there is some evidence of human occupation prior to 300 B.C., maximum site use occurred during the Middle Woodland (300 B.C. to A.D. 800) and Late Woodland (A.D. 800-1650) periods. A scatter of late 18th and 19th century historic material on the site can be attributed to its use as a farmstead by the Baum family.

The Middle Woodland period component has been recently designated the Mount Pleasant phase (Phelps 1980). It is identified by the sand and pebble tampered Mount Pleasant ceramic series, burials of the flexed inhumation type, and other traits. Two of the typical flexed burials of this phase have been excavated at the site. One of these underlay an unusual (for eastern North Carolina) primary cremation dated to A.D. 360+65 (UGa-1085), from a sample of the juncus grass mat in which the body had been wrapped. Features and other data from the Mount Pleasant phase component indicate that the site functioned during that period as a permanent village.

Colington is the phase name assigned (Phelps 1980) to the Late Woodland period in the northern coastal area of North Carolina. The Colington phase refers to the prehistoric and protohistoric culture of the Algonkian peoples who inhabited this part of the coastal area at the time of English exploration (1584-1587) and permanent settlement (1650). During this phase the Baum site continued in use as a permanent village, perhaps occupied by the ancestors of the Poteskeet Indians who still lived in Currituck County during the early Historic period. The site reached its maximum size during this phase, and ample evidence of the diagnostic traits has been recovered, including the Colington ceramic series of shell tempered ware, Roanoke projectile points and other lithic tools, pipes, beads, milling stones and bone implement. Features and scattered postmolds indicate that at least part of the intra-site pattern of activity areas and structures may be intact below the plow zone, and preservation of food remains (shell, bone) gives evidence of the multiple adaptation to food resources in Currituck Sound, the marshes and swamps, (Page 6) and the uplands.



Figure 3. The shore side of the Baum site. (a) Looking south toward Poplar Branch, shell and cultural material eroded from the site can be seen along the beach. (b) Typical low bank erosion at the site; the wooden structure at left center is the temporary bulkhead built to protect Burial 5 during excavation. (Page 7)

One radiocarbon date of A.D. 1315+70 (UGa-1089) for the Colington phase was obtained from Test Square B. One of the more significant aspects of Algonkian culture at the Baum site is the recovery of typical mass burials (ossuaries). The Algonkian pattern of saving the skeletal remains of the dead for a specified period of time and then depositing them in one common grave was a standard practice in the Middle Atlantic region from North Carolina northward (Ubelaker 1974). With the present sample, three such burials have been reclaimed from the Baum site. The first (Feature 1) was observed only as the remaining pit bottom with some charred and uncharted human bone still in place on the beach in 1972. The second ossuary, Burial 1, was revealed through test excavation in 1972 and excavated in 1973. Burial 1 contained the remains of 58 individuals, including 8 articulated skeletal units, some in bundle form and others represented by scattered bones. While burial offerings are not numerous or usual in the ossuaries, the remains of a panther "mask", bone awls, and bone pins were recovered from Burial 1. The ossuaries and other data of the Colington phase of Algonkian culture recovered to date are indicators of the high potential of the Baum site for understanding the intra-site patterns of a major Algonkian village and additional knowledge of Colington phase culture in general. The Baum site was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in June, 1980, and goes before the State Study Committee for final approval in October, 1980.


The first ossuary (Feature 1) observed at the Baum site was nothing more than the remnants of the burial pit and its content lying directly on the beach. It was from this burial that bone had been picked up by the people who originally reported the site to the University. The excavation of Burial 1, the second ossuary, provided an opportunity to devise excavation and recovery techniques suitable for such cultural features, and these were thereafter tested in the excavation of three ossuaries from other sites in the Coastal area. Two of these, in Dare and Carteret counties, were salvaged after bank erosion had exposed them.

Research Methods

In May, 1980, when the exposure of Burial 5 by erosion was reported, the site visit confirmed that the human bone was part of a typical ossuary. Both scattered and articulated bones were observed where wave action had eroded the less compact fill of the pit. The exposed part of the pit was covered with plywood and soil until time and funds for excavation could be found. By early June, wave action from storms had washed away the temporary cover and exposed more bone. (Page 8)

A crew was dispatched to the site to install better protective devices and prepared the area for excavation. At that time, a temporary bulkhead of 2" x 6" boards nailed to 2" x 4" uprights inserted into the beach was constructed around the section of the burial pit exposed on the face of the bank and the eroded bone was collected from the beach. An area approximately 4 meters square (Squares Q-T) was measured and staked on the surface above the pit, using the exposed pit section as a guide to size (Figure 4). The area thus laid out was sufficient to expose the entire pit outline and provide working space around it. The top zone of disturbed plowed soil was then removed and sifted from the two westernmost squares (O-R) and the burial pit outline exposed, plotted and photographed. The exposed pit and the excavated area were then covered with plastic and back-filled. The eastern squares were not excavated because of potential erosion hazards. The excavation provided fairly accurate data on pit diameter and depth, and permitted a rough estimate of the number of individuals (between 20 and 40) based on similar burials previously studied. On this basis, a research design for the burial excavation was formulated, and time, personnel and supplies estimated.

The actual excavation began on July 12 with removal of the back-fill from Squares Q and R, then excavation of Zone I (plowed, disturbed upper soil) from Squares S and T. The fully exposed burial pit outline, readily visible intruding into the tan sand subsoil, was then photographed and plotted to scale. The profile of the burial pit observed in the bank was similarly plotted and photographed. Next, removal of the fill within the burial pit began, sifting all of the soil through a standard ¼" mesh screen. An articulated skeleton (5A) was encountered only 2 cm. down into the fill, and excavation halted while this burial was cleaned, plotted, photographed and removed. Fill removal then continued down to the top of the main bone deposit, which was cleaned, plotted and photo- graphed in general and in detail. For purposes of plotting and removal of the skeletal material, a basic 1-meter grid was set up over the main bone deposit, dividing it into sections (I-VIII) which served to record bone deposition and association. In removal, all articulated skeletal units were collected separately, regardless of section, and other bones were reclaimed according to plotted section number. A count of individuals was maintained by assigning a letter to each cranium. After bone removal was completed, the bottom fill dirt was wet-screened to reclaim smaller bone fragments and any artifacts possibly remaining in the fill. The excavation was filled in on July 19 to complete the operation, and the temporary bulkhead left in place at Mr. Baum's request so that he could use it as a duck blind for the coming hunting season.

The Ossuary and Its Contents

Approximately 30 individuals were reclaimed in the Burial 5 ossuary, based on the cranium count. Perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 of the pit (Page 9) had been destroyed by erosion, but most of the bone was salvaged from the beach. This burial varied from the Burial 1 ossuary in that one articulated individual (Figure 5a) had been placed in the pit while it was being refilled after the burial ceremony. Possible explanations are (1) that one family arrived too late for the initial interment but before the pit was closed, or (2) that the individual died during the ceremony and was included without the usual preparatory practice of flesh removal. In either case, this is the first observed instance of a body placed in the upper pit. A separate, intrusive burial was ruled out since no distinct pit outline around the individual was observed.

Figure 4. Location of ossaries and extent of low bank erosion at the baum site. (Page10)

The main burial contained approximately 29 individuals deposited in a generally circular pattern on the floor of the pit. On the south side, some disarticulated bones had been deposited directly on the side of the pit and leaned against the side wall. Three fully articulated skeletons were observed, two or three obvious bundles of bones could be identified, but the remaining material was randomly scattered. There was no discernable pattern of skull deposition as opposed to postcranial parts, but the bones have yet to be fully analyzed. All ages from new born infant to old age, and both sexes are represented in the burial.

Burial 5 is similar to Burial 1 in having a circular outline (Figure 4), and differed only in having a shallow shelf around the top of the pit (Figure 5b). Burial 5 was slightly deeper than Burial 1 but both intruded into the orange clay bottom zone (Zone III) of the site. The cluster pattern of Burials 1, 5 and Feature 1, the three ossuaries, seems to indicate the existence of a "cemetery area" at the Baum site. This is the first site in which this pattern has been observed and it may have important implications for intra-site activity in this and other Colington phase sites.

While there were numerous artifacts and other debris in the fill of Burial 5, these resulted from excavating the original pit through the midden layer of the site. The only artifact which appears to have been intentionally deposited with the burial is a small necklace of 15 marginella shall and 1 disc-shaped copper beads. The marginella shells range from 9 to 11 mm. in length and were prepared for stringing by abrading a hole in the shoulder of the shell just below the tip of the spire. The copper bead is approximately 11 mm. in diameter and less than 1 mm. in thickness. The drilled suspension hole is near the edge and has a diameter of 2 mm. The necklace was reclaimed from the southwestern edge of the bone deposit, near a group of crania of infants and children.

Cultural material from the fill of the pit confirms that Burial 5 originated during the Colington phase. Of the 78 ceramic specimens reclaimed from the fill dirt, 71 belong to the Colington series and include the following types: fabric impressed, 58; simple stamped, 1; plain, 1; the remaining 11 had surfaces too eroded or too small to (Page 11) determine surface finish.



Figure 5. Burial 5 during excavation; skeleton 5A is shown in the upper pit fill (a). The main ossary concentration in the bottom of the burial pit (b). Both views south; note erosion of the pit fill in view a. (Page 12)

A reddish-tan ceramic pipestem, cylindrical in cross-sections also is assignable to the Colington phase. Other parts of this pipe were found scattered in the plow zone of Squares O, R and T. The remaining 7 ceramic sherds belong to the earlier Mount Pleasant component. Seven stone spalls, primarily jasper, could have been residue of either component.

Specimens from the pit fill of Burial 5 are summarized in Tables 1 and 2, along with the artifacts reclaimed from Zone I (plow zone) of Squares Q, R, S, and T. The Colington ceramic specimens quantitatively predominate, indicating a larger site component during that phase than in the preceding Mount Pleasant phase. This conclusion is also borne out by previous data from the site.

Food remains from the excavated squares and burial fill included 47 fish bones, 37 mammal bones, 6 bird bones, 6 turtle bones; the remaining 50 fragments were too small to identify. Among the mammals, (Page 13) bear and deer were represented; gar and shark could be readily identified in the fish specimens; and both Carolina and diamond back terrapin were among the turtle remains. These and previous faunal specimens will eventually be submitted to experts for specific analysis. Shell fish remains are primarily oyster, followed in frequency by Venus clam and various gastropods.


This report briefly summarizes the background of investigations at the Baum site and the salvage of the Burial 5 ossuary, the latter supported under this grant.

Burial 5 is an ossuary typical of the Algonkian cultural pattern of mass burial. It contained the remains of approximately 30 individuals of all ages and both sexes, and a small necklace of marginella shell and copper beads as a possible burial offering. The burial is similar to previous ossuaries reclaimed at the Baum site and other Colington phase sites in the northern coastal region of north Carolina, but the clustering of the Baum site ossuaries is the first evidence of the possibility of "cemetery areas". This intra-site pattern will require further investigation.

Analysis of the skeletal remains from Burial 5 was not provided for in this grant. A study of these, along with specimens from the previously excavated ossuaries at Baum and other sites will considerably enhance knowledge of the Algonkian physical type and demographic factors of Colington phase populations.

The continuing low-bank erosion of the Baum site it typical of a pattern of natural erosional processes which affects most of the archaeological sites in the North Carolina coastal zone. Within a few decades, there will be few prehistoric or historic cultural resources remaining to be managed under the Coastal Area Management Act, and North Carolina will be bereft of the greater segment of its coastal history. (Page 14)

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Carolina Algonkian Project, All Rights Reserved