Site erosion along the NC coast

Evidence of Past Changes and Current Threats to the Landscape Through Archaeology
North Carolina Heritage at Risk

Projects investigating the past and present threats of climate change can provide a starting point for studying, analyzing, and managing cultural heritage at risk in North Carolina.

Author: Allyson Ropp, Historic Preservation Archaeology Specialist

Environmental changes happen every day. Water rises, trees grow roots, animals burrow, and ice and salt expand and contract. The effects of these changes are visible in archaeological sites and historic structures. Archaeologists can see these changes in the walls of a ruined home or the scatter of artifacts around a shipwreck.

With the increasing concern about the threats of climate change on the world, several studies have been undertaken in North Carolina to explore the influence of climate change on archaeological sites. A study organized by researchers at East Carolina University examined archaeological sites in the coastal plain to identify those impacted by past sea level rise (Marano 2012). By examining historical and archaeological documents, the study identified 24 sites with evidence of effects from past sea level rise. All 24 sites are on shorelines or underwater, even though they used to be above water and show evidence of sea level rise since the 1700s.

Another study, conducted by former assistant state archaeologist Lawrence Abbott in 2011, examined the threat of current sea level rise to coastal archaeological sites. The study mapped the locations of 5,752 archaeological sites across 31 coastal counties, all within 30 feet above mean sea level. Next, the sites were analyzed in the context of sea level rise. Estimating that the sea level would rise approximately 3 feet by the year 2100, the project attempted to identify National Register properties and shell middens that would be impacted by this rise. Through this desk-based study, Abbott identified 204 National Register sites and 581 shell middens at risk of erosion and inundation from sea level rise. Abbott provides a representative sample of sites exhibiting coastal erosion to show the danger to sites and support the need for this continued research.

These projects provide a starting point for studying, analyzing, and managing cultural heritage at risk in North Carolina. From these studies, we can continue desk-based research to identify heritage at risk and take the next steps in analyzing and protecting these sites. At present,  protective efforts include the Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund grants for shoreline sites and historic cemeteries, wave attenuators at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site, and general monitoring of known archaeological sites.


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.

-Abbott, Lawrence. 2011. The Office of State Archaeology Sea Level Rise Project: Initial Results and Recommendations Concerning the Adaptation of Cultural Resources to Climate Change. Report to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Report from the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology.
-Marano, Joshua. 2012. Anthropogenic Maritime Sites as Potential Indicators of Historic Sea Level Change in Coastal North Carolina. Report from East Carolina University, Greenville, NC.

-Main image: Site erosion at a bank on the NC coast. Image by NC Office of State Archaeology.

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