Map of NC counties in Outer Coastal Plain
Map of North Carolina counties showing the Outer Coastal Plain region. This area includes the following counties: Bertie, Beaufort, Brunswick, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Pender, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 2022)


The Outer Coastal Plain consists of the Outer Banks and the Tidewater Region of North Carolina. This area is defined by the presence of large sounds, bays, and river mouths, including the Albemarle Sound, the Pamlico Sound, and the lower Cape Fear River. Archaeological sites in the Outer Coastal Plain range from towns and plantations along the rivers to pre-contact occupation sites and shell middens to fishing and waterway infrastructures (e.g., fish houses and loading docks).

Archaeological sites in this region face climate threats that span changes in waterway conditions to extreme weather events, including droughts and wildfires. Changes in sea level, precipitation, and temperature present daily threats to sites. The diversity and timing of threats makes it difficult to accurately predict the effects on archaeological sites and develop protective measures. As some threats occur daily and some occur randomly, archaeologists must be adaptable in managing these at-risk sites.

Archaeologists surveying the shoreline at Town Creek. This bluff overlooks the creek
Archaeologists surveying the shoreline at Town Creek. This bluff overlooks the creek. The ground is scattered with brick and ceramic fragments, suggesting the presence of a historical archaeological site. While on a bluff, this artifact scatter will face coastal erosion of the bluff face that will cause the scatter to collapse into the creek. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 2022)

A prominent threat to many archaeological sites in this region is coastal erosion resulting from changes in sea level, precipitation, and tropical cyclones. Erosion moves sediment away from the shoreline. This process exposes buried resources and may eventually wash out sediment from underneath them, called undercutting. For example, sites on Town Creek in Brunswick County have seen significant damage from water movement. Rising sea levels and storms have exposed artifacts and structures and are undercut shorelines. At a particular plantation site covered by marsh grasses and marsh mud, daily and storm-driven erosion have caused the dock structure to be visible along the shoreline and be undercut creating almost a shelf of the site. With this site experiencing undercutting, collapse of the exposed structure is inevitable.

Archaeologist recording an exposed wooden structure along Town Creek
Archaeologist recording an exposed wooden structure along Town Creek. This wooden structure was exposed due to marsh erosion, caused by storm surge and sea level rise. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 2022)

Outer coastal sites face additional threats, including the introduction of new organisms and changes in water properties. These new environmental conditions lead to site degradation in different ways. For example, metal exposed to changes in salinity or acidification may corrode differently or faster. Sites with wood, such as the wharves at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site, may also degrade faster in these new environments. Wood-eating creatures, such as shipworms, utilize wood as an energy source. This process leads to the interior degradation of the wood and eventually leads to collapse.


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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.