Author: Allyson Ropp, Historic Preservation Archaeology Specialist
Imagine arriving in North Carolina aboard a colonial ship. You've successfully navigated past the crashing waves and sandbars, crossing a second stretch of water known as the sound. Afterward, you sail up a river and discover vast forests, perfect for gathering lumber and growing various crops. As you continue up the river, you notice it starts to narrow. You've reached what we now call the Inner Coastal Plain! This area offers safety from the dangerous ocean waters and provides an excellent opportunity to establish your homestead and farm, which might eventually grow into a town like Historic Halifax. Even today, towns and farms still dot the landscape of the Inner Coastal Plain.
The Inner Coastal Plain has a fascinating geological history that made it suitable for agriculture and human settlement. This region lies to the east of the fall line, which separates the Coastal Plain from the Piedmont. The fall line is a geological feature that formed around 34 to 55 million years ago (Fowlkes 2006; Aurora Fossil Museum 2023). Back then, the entire Coastal Plain was underwater, and the shoreline was where the fall line is today, at the eastern edge of the Piedmont. Since then, water has slowly moved eastward across the Coastal Plain due to changes in the Earth's temperature. North Carolina’s current coastline settled about 2 million years ago during the last glacier formation further north.
What makes the Inner Coastal Plain so habitable are the lack of ocean effects and the soil. Because inner coastal counties do not border the ocean, they are not affected by daily waves or take the brunt of major storms. The soil left behind as the waters receded millions of years ago is dense clay and tightly packed sand. This provides more stability for plants and prevents quick erosion, allowing the area to support vast forests.
People have lived in the Inner Coastal Plain for a long time, leaving behind many archaeological resources, from ancient habitation sites to colonial homes, battlefields, and even shipwrecks. Two common types of resources are historic homes and battlefields. These sites face similar types of impacts from the climate. Historic homes and structures, like those at Historic Halifax State Historic Site and the Governor Charles B. Aycock's Birthplace, cover larger areas and include wooden and rock structures along with buried artifacts. Climate impacts can affect these sites in different ways. For example, at Historic Halifax, the stone foundation of the spring house at Magazine Spring continuously fills with water and sediment during storms and with the changing water table. This can cause the stone structure to break down over time. Water and nutrients in the soil also support biological growth, which can further damage rocks and wooden structures. Many historic homes across the region exhibit this kind of damage.
Because of the easy access to waterways, the flat land, and the proximity to other major cities in the southeast, the Inner Coastal Plain witnessed battles in many of America’s major conflicts, including the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. These battlefield landscapes exhibit human-made earthworks, sunken shipwrecks, and buried materials like buttons and ammunition. Excess water movement from rain and hurricanes can shift sediment, potentially disturbing artifacts. This erosion can also lead to the collapse of earthworks, completely altering the landscape. Animals burrowing in these areas can also stir up soft sediment and move artifacts around.
The Inner Coastal Plain has been a persistent place for living and farming for millennia. This legacy is seen in the farms and villages that still sprinkle the landscape. But as the climate changes, these sites are not immune to loss. Documentation is vital to preserving the deep cultural history of the Inner Coastal Plain.
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.
Aurora Fossil Museum
N.D. Aurora Fossil Museum Fact Sheet: Geology of the NC Coastal Plain. Aurora Fossil Museum, Aurora, NC. Accessed September 2023.
2006 “Fall Line.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press.