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ECU professor Randolph Daniel (left) helps student Jill Blackwell, center, draw a map of the excavation site while Matthew Guzman, right, works at back filling. The group of ECU archaeologists were studying a site near the Tar River as part of Daniel’s ongoing research on the earliest inhabitants of the region. (Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi)

ECU Research May Shed Light on Climate Changes

By Christine Neff

Covered in dirt from bandana to work boots, Jennifer Burnham took a short break from the busy job of shoveling earth at an archaeology site near the Tar River.

“It’s hard work,” admitted the East Carolina University junior. “When you see archaeologists on television, they’re working with brushes and dental picks. They don’t show the ton of earth they had to move to get to that point.”

In a summer when Hollywood archaeologists rule the big screen, a group of ECU students and their professor were doing important research at nearby Barber Creek, a tributary of the Tar River.

The study, led by Randolph Daniel, an ECU archaeologist, began eight years ago with the intent to better understand the earliest inhabitants of eastern North Carolina.

Since then, it has evolved into a project that may inform our future, as well as our past, by potentially shedding light on how early humans adapted to climate changes.

The site, located in Pitt County on property owned by Greenville Utilities, is a “relic, sand dune,” Daniel said. Sand accumulated there over thousands of years, probably beginning at the end of the Ice Age.

The phenomenon created what archaeologists call a “stratified site.” “Think of a layer cake,” Daniel said, “and each one of those layers has some evidence of human occupation.”

Initially, Daniel thought that flooding incidents created the layers. But research into the geology of the site has shown that wind – not water – formed the dune.

An ECU doctoral student, Chris Moore, has since identified nearly 20 other locations on the coastal plain with similar, physical characteristics.

The discovery could have broad implications, since climate change may have caused the dune to develop in layers. “If the formation of this dune is regulated by climate change, these dunes might tell us something about the onset of modern, climactic conditions, and human adaptations to them,” Daniel said.

But to understand the modern applications, researchers must first understand the humans that lived on Barber Creek thousands of years ago. That’s where the archaeology comes in.

This summer, the field school crew worked in pits between one- and three-feet deep, carefully digging up earth walked on by humans during the Archaic period.

“That runs from about 10,000 years ago up until about 3,000 years ago,” Daniel said of the time frame. “This is long before settled villages, agriculture. This was small populations moving about the landscape, hunting and gathering.”

The crew did some hunting – and heavy lifting – of its own this summer. Students searched for artifacts as they shoveled sand and sifted it through a wire screen. When they found something, they meticulously recorded the object’s location and saved it to be studied in the lab.

Though the work was hard, they appreciated the experience. “I love archaeology,” said Christine Chitwood, an ECU junior majoring in anthropology and religious studies. “I definitely want to go into it for my profession, so this summer, I decided this would be the ideal thing to do.”

Pieces of pottery, stone tools, spear points and flakes of stone were among the items they uncovered this summer. Though not the stuff of Hollywood films, these artifacts are, perhaps, more important: “This is the archaeology of this part of the world, and it has its story to tell that has to be read through the refuse that people left behind,” Daniel said.

As that story continues to be written, the chapter on Barber Creek may be coming to a close. Daniel will consider moving his research to another archaeological site – one of those identified by Moore – next summer, he said.

“This is just one chapter in the big book,” he said

This page originally appeared in the Aug. 1, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at