Salvage Archaeology at the Cullowhee Valley School

Jackson County

Construction of the new K-8 Cullowhee Valley School was complicated by the discovery of significant archaeological resources (including human burials) on the planned school site. David Moore, archaeologist at the Western Office of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History in Asheville, directed the salvage excavations at the site which is located in Cullowhee, Jackson County, less than one mile from the campus of Western Carolina University.

The project began with the discovery of a feature by Joel Hardison, an anthropology student at Western Carolina University. Joel, who had often collected artifacts from the site, was examining an area of the construction site when he observed a dark pit partially exposed by the bulldozer. The disturbed soil contained pottery, charcoal, and bone, and Joel reported the discovery of a possible human burial to Anne Rogers, anthropologist at WCU, who reported it to David Moore.

David's examination of the feature revealed it to be a trash pit but he alerted the Jackson County School Superintendent, Dr. Charles McConnell, that additional features and human burials were likely to be present. Under North Carolina General Statute 70-3, it is illegal to disturb unmarked human remains. Therefore, with the cooperation of the Jackson county school officials and the grading contractor, David began a rushed investigation to identify and remove any burials present on the site.

Ultimately, the salvage project revealed that portions of three separate sites remained partially (see figure) intact despite the initial grading that had taken place. The first is a Woodland period village that probably dates to ca. A.D. 700-900. It is a palisaded village and is especially significant for what is believed to be the foundation of an earthlodge. Three burial were located within the village, including one in the middle of the earthlodge. Interestingly, the pottery found here is most similar to Napier pottery found in North Georgia. Sites of this time period are poorly known in the southern mountains and information gathered here will greatly expand our understanding of the cultures that preceded the Cherokee culture in western North Carolina.

The second site, located just south of the Woodland village, dates to the Pisgah (Cherokee ancestors) phase ca. A.D. 1500-1650.

Although most of this site was already graded away, portions of four palisades were discovered along with numerous features. The ceramic information gathered here along with the potential for radiocarbon dates makes it likely that this site will enhance our ability to date late Pisgah pottery and to discriminate it from early Qualla (Historic period Cherokee) ceramics. Also, an abundance of charred plant remains from features at both sites will enable researchers to compare diets from the different time periods.

The third site was represented by two features and dates to the early nineteenth century. Feature contents included Qualla pottery, glass beads, animal bone, a variety of buttons, bottle glass, and gun parts. This is likely to represent a Removal Era Cherokee homestead. Future research may reveal the names of the occupants of this home site just before they were removed on the Trail of Tears.

This project represented an enormous undertaking; an area of more than 7,900 square meters (71,100 square feet) was examined and mapped. One hundred, thirty-two (132) features and over 1,020 postholes were identified and more than 90 of the features were excavated. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the help of volunteers. David was assisted by more than 125 individuals who contributed more than 2,000 hours to the project. Volunteers came from WCU, the Cullowhee community and Jackson County, Asheville, Franklin, Charlotte, Marion, Chapel Hill, even from as far as Atlanta, Georgia. A special thanks goes to the archaeologists from the National Forest Service in North Carolina and Tennessee and to archaeology faculty and students at Appalachian State University in Boone.

The Office of State Archaeology is not funded to carry out such extended projects and therefore, without the help of these volunteers it is likely that more of the salvaged sites would have been lost.

David Moore hopes to raise funds for continuing work on the excavated materials. Funds will be necessary for radiocarbon dates, analysis of the floral and faunal remains, and analysis of the human skeletal remains before a final report can be written. Volunteers will continue their valuable contribution as they wash and catalogue the excavated materials and help to analyze pottery, stone tools, and other artifacts.

Finally, it should be pointed out that according to the provisions of G.S. 70-3, the human remains will be studied under agreement with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Upon completion of the study they will be returned to the Eastern Band.

Already, construction of the Cullowhee Valley School has obliterated any trace of these archaeological sites. Despite the loss of two sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, we have gathered important information that should help us understand more of the past Cherokee culture in western North Carolina.

by: David G. Moore, Western Office, NC Office of State Archaeology

Reprinted by permission from the NEWSLETTER of the North Carolina Archaeological Society, Summer 1992, Volume 2, Number 2. © North Carolina Archaeological Society 1992