A classroom with shovels

If your idea of an archaeological dig features a bullwhip-toting, fedora-wearing Indiana Jones rescuing precious artifacts from greedy thieves, you might want to go easy on the movie popcorn.

Just ask Isaac Warshauer, who was working at the Wall Site dig in Hillsborough as part of the 2015 UNC Archaeological Field School on a muggy morning.

“It’s not swashbuckling, and it takes some effort to see the glamour in it,” said Warshauer, a recent archaeology graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences. “We don’t go through booby traps to uncover things, but people had been plowing these fields for many years before anyone realized that Native Americans occupied this place. In a different way, there’s something glamorous about that.”

The Wall Site, located in an overgrown field on the banks of the Eno River, is a Native American fortified town that was occupied from the mid-15th through the 16th centuries by ancestors of the Shakori and Eno tribes. Now, 15 undergraduate students, two graduate teaching assistants and a handful of volunteers are uncovering artifact as part of the Archaeological Field School.

Founding director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s 75-year-old Research Laboratories of Archeology held the first extensive excavation at the Wall Site in 1940. Excavations continued in 1983-84 and again in 2001-02.

Carolina archaeologist Brett Riggs said the return to the Wall Site 75 years after the first major excavation is not just for commemorative purposes. The RLA has a sustained, ongoing commitment to illuminating the history of Native American communities in the Carolina Piedmont, he said.

“What’s their trajectory? What’s their evolution over time?” Riggs said. “Native communities abandoned this region in the early 18th century, and a lot of the people moved south to take refuge with the Catawba Nation. So to trace these communities farther ahead in time, we have to look at other places. We have very real, ongoing questions here. The archaeology is the document we use to flesh out that story.”

For the latest dig, students uncovered artifacts such as discarded animal bones, plant foods charred in cooking fires, broken pottery fragments and stones used to make tools. Artifacts found in trash pits can tell archaeologists all kinds of information — they are a window into daily life.

“These storage pits tell us what people were eating through plant and animal bone remains,” said second-year graduate student Rosie Blewitt. “We can use the pottery to set a chronology in time. It can also tell us about group affiliation, how people were related to one another.”

Taught by Riggs and his colleague Stephen Davis, the field school is an experiential, six-credit-hour course that teaches basic techniques of excavation, mapping, surveying, photography and artifact identification.

Senior Teresa Kane said the course has given her a greater appreciation for the history and archaeology of North Carolina.

“As an English major, I’m particularly interested in writings of the South,” she said. “This is the history of the South right here in our hands.”

Throughout the years, students’ contributions have gone far beyond any single field school, Davis said.

“Probably 300 students have been involved over the years, and the research wouldn’t have been possible without their individual efforts,” he said. “I ran into an alumnus who’s an attorney in Hillsborough, and he said it was the best course he took as an undergraduate.”

Even a junior scientist or two could be found at the site. Thirteen-year-old Connor Ramaswamy, a Boy Scout from Alamance County, was working on earning his archaeology merit badge.

“I needed to get in a total of eight hours, and I didn’t want to do a fake dig,” he said. “I had my doubts at first, but then I started seeing pottery [fragments] and large animal bones.

“It’s very fun to dig things up.”

View a College Facebook album of Wall Site dig photos.

Video by Rob Holliday, Office of Communications and Public Affairs.  Story by Kim Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences.

Published June 24, 2015