Why do we record archaeological sites?
Archaeology allows us to discover the many unwritten stories of human history by investigating the material remains people left behind. An archaeological site is a location where at least one artifact or feature that is greater than 50 years of age has been identified. An artifact is defined as an object made or used by humans and a feature is the non-portable remains of human activity.
Each archaeological site recorded in North Carolina is assigned a three-part number called a trinomial, following the site number system created by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1930s and 1940s. The first part of the trinomial is a number between one and fifty that indicates the state (North Carolina is 31), followed by two letters for the county, and a final set of numbers that indicate the order that sites were discovered within the county. So, the site recorded as “31MA50” was the fiftieth site recorded in Macon County, North Carolina.
Most North Carolina counties have hundreds of recorded sites, although some have significantly more or less. Tyrell County has the least number of sites (24), while Hoke County has the most (4,063). Sites are usually documented when citizens report them or as part of an archaeological investigation before a construction project is begun, so these numbers are influenced by how many people currently live in each county and how much development is happening there. The number of sites does not necessarily reflect how many people occupied each county in the past.
The NC Office of State Archaeology (OSA) stores information on over fifty-thousand archaeological sites statewide so that it can be accessed by researchers, descendant communities, local governments, and agencies seeking compliance with State and Federal preservation laws. Recording a site with OSA will help us learn more about our past and may prevent it from being damaged or destroyed.
What if you find an archaeological site?
Maybe you have gone for a walk in a state park and you saw a piece of pottery laying on the ground. Or you were planting flowers in your front yard and you dug up an arrowhead. Maybe a family member has a box full of projectile points in the basement that they picked up over the years while farming. What can you do to protect these archaeological resources?
Most importantly, if you stumble across an artifact somewhere outside, leave it where it is! Context is critical in archaeology. Taking an artifact out of its context makes it harder to learn that artifact’s story. Additionally, if you are on state or federal lands, removing an artifact is against the law. Follow National Park Service guidance: “Take only pictures, leave only footsteps!”
Take a picture of the artifact or make a drawing. Write down the artifact’s location and make notes about the area where you found it. You can use this information to fill out a Citizen Archaeologist Site Form and submit it to the OSA.
If you already have some artifacts at home (the projectile point collection in the basement, etc.), you can still record it with the OSA. Take pictures of the artifact(s) and write down everything you remember about where and how the artifact was collected. Some collectors kept very careful records of where they found things, so we can still learn a lot from their discoveries.
If the collected artifacts came from privately-owned land (either your own property or property you entered with the permission of the private landowner), you are not obligated to give us your collection. However, if you are interested in donating your collection to the OSA, you can find more information about the process at https://archaeology.ncdcr.gov/programs/curation.
To keep archaeological sites safe from looting, site location information is protected by state and federal statutes, and access to location information submitted to the OSA is restricted when deemed necessary. You are not required to allow people onto your property because you reported the presence of an archaeological site.
How to fill out the Citizen Archaeologist Site Form
The North Carolina Citizen Archaeologist Site Form is designed to allow members of the public to submit information relating to a wide variety of archaeological sites across the state. When you submit one of these forms to the OSA, we will assign a trinomial number to your site, add it to our statewide map, and store the form.
The more information you can add to the form, the better. However, you do not need to fill out all the fields to submit a form to the OSA. The only information we must have to assign a trinomial is what you found (pictures or descriptions) and where you found it (a map).
Photographs of an artifact or feature are great records (though written descriptions and drawings are also welcome). You might consider submitting photographs that show the front, back, and sides of your find. When possible, include an object for scale such as a ruler, a quarter, a pencil, etc.
A map may be a legible copy of a road or topographic map or a computer-generated map (like Google Maps). Please include enough information on the map to properly locate the site. Street names, coordinates, and landscape features such as roads, tree lines, water bodies, and buildings help us find the location on our own statewide map.
When you have completed your form, you can email or mail it to:
Office of State Archaeology
4619 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-4619
We have a different form for recording historic cemeteries with additional instructions. For more information about NC historic cemeteries and how you can help record and preserve them, visit our Cemeteries Program page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you record an archaeological site with the OSA, you are contributing to our understanding of 14,000 years of human history in North Carolina as a Citizen Archaeologist!