At East Carolina University, students have access to state-of-the art laboratories, world-class libraries, and a multitude of resources to assist in the pursuit of advanced degrees. The last place one would expect to find a student working on her master’s thesis would be at the bottom of an open grave. However, for second-year graduate student Sheri Balko, a 200-year-old cemetery in Kinston, North Carolina, is the best resource.
It is there she hoped to find the remains of Richard Caswell, a Revolutionary War hero and first governor of the state of North Carolina. Locating the burial site is part of her master’s thesis in anthropology. Her thesis also explores the reasons why the location of the grave was lost and why its relocation is important for local and familial identity.
“We don’t know where he is, and he was a very important person in North Carolina’s history,” said Balko. “To not know where he was buried, I think, does a real disservice to him and his descendants.”
Balko’s investigation of historic documents and photographs suggested that Governor Richard Caswell’s grave was located in a Caswell family cemetery in Kinston, North Carolina. After a ground-penetrating radar survey revealed the location of a grave shaft, Balko and a team of researchers from ECU, led by anthropology professor Dr. Charles Ewen, traveled to Kinston to put her hypothesis to the test.
Jonathan Smith and Sheri Balko sift through dirt, removed from the grave shaft, for artifacts.
The search for Caswell’s grave is the latest in a long line of archaeological digs conducted in eastern North Carolina by students and faculty from ECU’s Department of Anthropology.
“We’ve had an archaeologist on our faculty for the past 40 years,” said Ewen. “When things come up in this part of the state, we are the first persons that people go to.”
The archaeology of the region covers a wide spectrum—everything from prehistoric sites like the oldest radiocarbon-dated site in the state at Barber Creek, to historic sites like surveys of nearby colonial towns, Civil War sites, and even the famed Lost Colony.
The wealth of nearby archaeological treasures is the byproduct of the importance of the region to history.
“You’ve had folks living in this part of the state for thousands and thousands of years. In fact, we have a site we are investigating right now that has radiocarbon dates that are 11,000 years old,” said Ewen.
The region was also witness to some of the earliest European contact, as well as important events in the American Revolution and Civil War. The remnants from these and many other events throughout history are scattered across the landscape, many still waiting to be discovered.
Because of tremendous access to archaeological and anthropological sites, ECU offers students ample opportunity to get their hands dirty by working in the field. Dr. Ewen had a hard time recalling a time when the department didn’t have a project in the field.
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