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ECU archaeology site is time capsule

(June 18, 2002)   —   An archaeology site near the Tar River in Pitt County has turned up evidence of human occupation going back more than 11,000 years and the dates could be pushed back even further as an archaeology team from East Carolina University continues its work.

"The site contains the prehistory of the coastal plain in a nutshell," said Dr. Randolph Daniel Jr., an ECU archaeologist, in describing a location on Barber Creek where numerous settlements of Native Americans lived.

Daniel calls the site, just east of Greenville, a "giant sand time capsule." He says the stratified layers of mostly sand covered by topsoil serve as a measuring stick to show a series of occupations over time.

So far, the artifacts and other materials found at the site have been dated to the early Archaic Period of 11,000 years ago and continuing forward through the Woodlands Period that began about 3,000 years ago. As the archaeologists dig deeper, the remains of human life at the location could extend further back in time.

Another unusual aspect of the site is that its location was once a fairly large sand dune. It's nothing compared to Jockey's Ridge, the famed dune on the Outer Banks, but it's a dune none the less, built over eons of time by blowing sand.

With a sand dune that is gradually expanding in size, the oldest materials are found at the deepest levels. Thousands of years of human occupation can be stacked on top in measurable layers.

Daniel is leading a summer field school of ECU students in conducting work. The initial efforts to investigate the site began two years ago when a team led by Daniel dug square and rectangular pits into the sand and uncovered materials as old as 9,000 years.

This summer, the team has carefully scraped to a depth of more than three feet into the earth.

"We have materials that date back to 11,220 years," said Daniel.

"To the best of my knowledge, this is the oldest radiocarbon dated component (archaeological site) in the state," he said.

Radiocarbon dating (Carbon 14) is done with organic materials such as pieces of charcoal, chips of bone and bits of hickory nutshells. The Barber Creek site is particularly beneficial to archaeologists because these materials are found in layers combined with stone tools and pottery that early people used with their campfires and food items.

Among the artifacts found at the site are pieces of pottery and stone tools such as hammers, scrapers and projectile points. Some of the stone implements and the flakes of stone removed to sharpen the edges of the stone tools include rocks from the coastal plain region as well as from the Piedmont sections.

A scraper found in one pit may have come from as far away as Morrow Mountain near Albemarle in Stanly County.

"It indicates that there was movement of people during these periods," said Daniel. He said life at Barber Creek was an intensive operation or there were repeated visits by hunters and gatherers from other places.

The archaeological site was discovered about 20 years by Dr. David Phelps, a former ECU archaeologist who is now retired. The location is close to where the creek empties into the Tar River. The property is part of the Greenville Utilities Commission's Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Daniel said the sand dune may also hold information useful in understanding floods and periods of drought that have occurred on the river over time. He said geologists have also been studying the sand dune with hopes that the layers will provide more insight about such things as the frequency of m


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481