Enduring Mysteries

“The students are partnered with the faculty and they get to participate in all the real research. And when you are doing real research, I think it makes a real difference to the student,” he said.

For both undergraduate and graduate students, the numerous and diverse opportunities to work in the field is special. Recently, ECU’s Department of Anthropology was hired to conduct a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey on part of the land designated for ECU’s new dental school. Assisting Dr. Ewen were Balko and fellow graduate student Jonathan Smith. Smith is also using one of the department’s two total stations (computerized surveying device) to map the Blackbottom cemetery in Belhaven, North Carolina, for his own master’s thesis, something he would have trouble doing at a school without its own equipment.

According to Smith, learning to use a total station and GPR at a university is “still not that common, although more universities are branching out into it.” This equipment is a key tool used in cultural resource management, the field that constitutes the largest employer of archaeologists. Federal laws require any construction or building project that involves federal funding, crosses federal land, or requires a federal permit, to do a cultural resources survey.

Dr. Charles Ewen measures the grave’s profile wall to determine how much farther the group needs to dig.

“It’s a useful skill to have for students if they are going on into academia or into the private sector for cultural resource management. Odds are, at some point you’ll be working on a site where the survey was done with GPR, so it helps to know something about it. Most archaeology programs don’t have them. ECU is among the few that do,” said Smith.

Balko’s search for Governor Caswell provided her the opportunity to put her field skills to the test. Her project’s goals included locating, excavating, and analyzing the grave of Richard Caswell through the use of geophysical and archaeological techniques. The project also required that surveys of the cemetery be done with both GPR and traditional surveying equipment.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when one searches for something that has been lost to history, the results did not meet the expectations. No human remains were found in the Kinston grave shaft, making confirmation of the site as Caswell’s grave impossible. Had she found skeletal remains, Balko would have used skeletal analysis to estimate age, sex, stature, and to identify any skeletal anomalies that might have helped with identification. She would have also used DNA testing to compare DNA from the remains with samples from Caswell’s living descendants.

“We did find the bottom of a coffin, which was still really exciting,” said Balko. “We were really fortunate we were able to excavate, and although we didn’t find [human remains], it only opens the doors for more questions that we now have to answer.”

The coffin bottom seems to prove that someone, at some point in history, took the time to bury something in that location. Balko is now trying to discover why Caswell’s remains were not there. She already has a few ideas as to what may have happened, but it will take more research to fully form a hypothesis. In doing so, she can rely on her training, her skills, her knowledge, and now her experience to see it through.

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