Map of NC counties in the Mountains
Map of North Carolina counties showing the Mountain region. This area includes the following counties: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Clay, Cherokee, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 2022)


The mountain region is the western portion of the state where the hills merge into the Appalachian Mountain range. The area is characterized by high peaks and deep valleys and rivers. Archaeological sites in the mountains include plantations and homesteads, historic cemeteries, battlefields, mills and other industrial sites, and pre-contact occupation sites.

Archaeological sites in this region face the impacts of changes in temperature, precipitation, and extreme weather events. The mountains and valleys intensify the effects of these threats as they funnel waters and make impacted areas difficult to access. It is even sometimes unknown when a site has been affected. Like the age-old adage “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?,” climate-related damage deep in the uninhabited and forested mountains may not be known about for a while, which can lead to more severe degradation of archaeological sites.

A small stone building on the McCombs Farm site in Cherokee County
A small stone building on the McCombs Farm site in Cherokee County. The structure shows signs of deterioration and chemical decay caused by increases in temperature and precipitation. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 2021)

As with elsewhere in the state, increased temperatures and precipitation encourage increased plant growth leading to archaeological site decay. Increased heavy rainfall and precipitation associated with tropical cyclones saturate the ground. This saturation can destabilize rocks and soils and cause landslides and mudslides. This massive ground movement may shift the land where a site is located. It may also result in sediments further covering archaeological sites. This inundation can be fast-moving and the resulting added weight can cause site damage. Several known sites in Macon and Jackson Counties have been impacted by landslides.

Tropical cyclones that move across the southeast lead to heavy rains and flooding in valleys. Many sites in the region are located on the small mountain streams and broader rivers in the valleys. During flood events, these sites are inundated by swift-moving water. This water can move artifacts from archaeological sites, cause site erosion along riverbanks, and lead to site collapse. Low-lying sites along the French Broad River and Pigeon Creek in Buncombe and Haywood Counties were severely impacted by this inundation from Tropical Storm Fred in 2021.

Flooding at the Biltmore Estate entrance in Asheville, North Carolina
Flooding at the Biltmore Estate entrance in Asheville, North Carolina. This extensive flooding in Asheville and throughout the river valleys of western North Carolina happened because of the Hurricanes Frances and Ivan. In 2004, Hurricanes Frances and Ivan both made landfall in the Florida Panhandle before moving over western North Carolina, bringing significant winds and rains. (Image by NC Historic Preservation Office, 2004)

Wildfires are an extreme weather events that results from increased temperature and a decrease in precipitation in certain areas. When wildfires spark, they burn through the forests and any structures in their way. These fires can spread quickly, and impact archaeological sites above and below ground through exposure to the flames and the intense heat. In 2016, wildfires spread throughout the southwestern portion of the mountains affecting archaeological sites in Burke, Buncombe, Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain, and Watauga counties.


View References for This Page

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.