Author: Allyson Ropp, Historic Preservation Archaeology Specialist
What defines North Carolina culture for you? Do you think of a physical structure or site iconic to the state, like the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the Biltmore Estate, or the USS North Carolina? Or do you think of a more local site, like a courthouse or church, that represents something important to your community? Maybe you picture a patch of land used for generations that holds visible and buried archaeological remains, like the Town Creek Indian Mound. Or perhaps it is the college basketball rivalries, NASCAR, or significant historical events, like the Wright Brothers' flights.
The one thing all these places, events, and ideas have in common is that they represent North Carolina’s cultural heritage. They mark important structures, sites, and concepts that illustrate North Carolina’s identity. Some of these are physically present in the environment as buildings, cemeteries, monuments, and archaeological sites. Others are more transient, tied to a cultural memory of what happened in a place, or represent an intangible connection to a physical place.
Beyond their importance to North Carolina, all these tangible and intangible places share a presence in the natural environment. Within the natural environment, things are constantly changing. These changes may be small-scale or large-scale shifts. Archaeologists have long been studying the impacts of environmental change on cultural heritage sites and archaeological resources. These physical, chemical, and biological forces have a direct effect on site preservation by changing the deposits and disturbing buried contexts.
Climate change is accelerating the impacts of these forces and affecting our understanding of site formation processes. For example, as the sea level rises across the coast, more water is forced into waterways, causing the erosion of the riverbanks and shorelines. Over time, the continual movement of water and sediment causes buried shoreline sites to be exposed to new environments, above-ground structures to collapse into the waterways, and significant changes to intangible cultural connections to landscapes.
The impacts of sea level rise are only one of climate change's effects on cultural heritage and archaeological sites. With climate change driving shifts in temperature, precipitation, water levels, and extreme weather events, there are numerous impacts on heritage sites that can change the cultural identity and people’s connection to these sites.
Just imagine for a moment what the collapse of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse would mean for the communities on the Outer Banks and the identity of our state. It would change not only the landscape of the Outer Banks but also the cultural identity of the place and the people. Threats to heritage sites make it essential for archaeologists to identify, document, and monitor archaeological sites impacted by climate change. By doing this, we can understand how these changes are affecting sites already at risk and prepare to protect sites that are not yet at risk but soon will be.
This monthly blog series, “North Carolina Heritage at Risk,” will explore threats, sites at risk, and efforts to protect these sites. Stay tuned the first Thursday of every month for more exciting insights into heritage at risk in North Carolina!
This material was produced with assistance from the Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.
-Main image: Erosion of the marshline on Town Creek in Brunswick County. Image by NC Office of State Archaeology.
-Biltmore Estate entrance in Asheville. Image by NC Historic Preservation Office.
-Northern Battery, Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site. Image by NC Office of State Archaeology.