Author: Allyson Ropp, Historic Preservation Archaeology Specialist
As summer comes to an end, families are making the most of their last few weeks of vacation. My family and I have a tradition of visiting the Outer Banks in August. We love soaking up the sun, lying in the sand, and enjoying the beach atmosphere. During our trips, we also explore historical places like the lighthouses at Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke, visit the US Life Saving Station at Chicamacomico (now Rodanthe), and learn about the shipwreck stories at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
When I was younger, the beaches were wide, and the sand dunes were tall. Each year, the islands looked both recognizable and different. The sights and sounds were familiar, but the landscape changed. The Outer Banks are a group of islands that shift both daily, due to the movement of sand, and yearly, because of storms that bring water onto the islands. These islands act as the first line of defense for the inland parts of North Carolina and are part of the Outer Coastal Plain.
The Outer Coastal Plain covers the 20 counties that touch the ocean and sound. This area has been important for agriculture and is surrounded by abundant waters teeming with life. It has been inhabited by various groups of people for a long time, including indigenous communities, colonists, escaped enslaved individuals, and their descendants. These diverse and long-standing communities left behind a variety of archaeological resources across the landscape. The ever-changing Outer Coastal Plain, with its dynamic barrier islands and shifting marshlands and pine groves, affects these archaeological sites across the landscape. Some of the most notable resources in the area are shell middens, beach wrecks, and shoreline infrastructure.
Shell middens are common sites in the Outer Coastal Plain. They are human-created deposits of shells and other debris that help archaeologists understand what life was like in the past and can date from the Archaic period (up to about 10,000 years ago) to more recent historic period cultures. Many of these middens are made up of oyster, mussel, and other mollusk shells, which were important sources of food. They're usually found near water where people caught and used these resources. However, due to rising sea levels and erosion, these sites are washing away. This puts the preservation of cultures and lifeways at risk, and it's important for us to identify and record them before they're lost.
Shipwrecks on beaches or riverbanks are another crucial aspect of the area's history. Some wrecks were intentionally grounded at the end of their useful lives, such as the numerous wrecks lining Eagle Island near Wilmington. However, the remnants of vessels that can be seen along the beaches of the Outer Banks were more likely victims of storms. Whether intentionally grounded or accidentally wrecked, these sites are also suffering from the adverse effects of climate change. Submerged vessels are becoming exposed, and visible wrecks are being inundated. This exposes the sites to unfamiliar environments and subjects them to the effects of drying or waterlogging, different organisms and chemistry, as well as powerful forces like wind and waves that can break them apart.
Maritime infrastructure is also visible across the landscape, with lighthouses being a prime example. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, for instance, was moved in 1999 to prevent it from falling into the ocean due to erosion from sea level rise. Similar processes are affecting other maritime sites, like wharves and landing structures. A prime example of this is the erosion undercutting the sediment around the wharves at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site. Over time, this damage can lead to their collapse and the loss of vital information from the site. While it is not always feasible to move coastal sites, archaeological recording and understanding of these sites is crucial for preserving our shared history.
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.