Archaeology field school looks below surface of campus, into history of region

Ben Steere (third from left) makes an observation on discoloration spots and indications of possible previous uses on the site.

On the campus of Western Carolina University is a small grassy expanse between the Natural Sciences Building and Hunter Library, one of many in this verdant mountain setting. Here, beneath the surface and through layers of earth is where a football field once sat, where farm fields lay and centuries prior, a Cherokee settlement stood.

Ben Steere, director of Cherokee Studies Programs and an assistant professor of anthropology, is leading an archaeology methods field school that is conducting an excavation of a rectangular spot, temporarily sheltered under a canopy. As of mid-June, the excavation was some three feet deep.

Ben Steere

“This is physically and mentally demanding,” Steere said, as the participants, all WCU students, used trowels to scrap handfuls of dirt carefully away into waiting buckets. “It also is an excellent learning opportunity and completely hands-on. This is a great team here, working together and sharing excitement of discoveries. They are taking full advantage of the field school experience.”

Steere is the author of “The Archaeology of Houses and Households in the Native Southeast,” a book that explores the evolution of Native American houses and households in the Southeast from the Woodland to the Historic Indian period (200 B.C. to 1800 A.D.) with data compiled from 65 archaeological sites. He pointed out features, such as a discoloration of clay, and explained its possible origin. A small clump was revealed as a ceramic fragment, part of a vessel used for cooking and storing maize and other foods.

The students began the dig Tuesday, June 6, documenting findings as they methodically troweled down into the dirt and clay. The initial layers were fill material from campus development from the past few decades, with brick fragments, mortar and assorted debris. Work at the site ends Friday, June 23, with the field school concluding Friday, June 30.

Between discoveries, WCU archaeology field school students spent much of their time methodically removing layers of earth.

“I’ve always loved the idea of digging for stuff anywhere,” said Carley Brookshire, a senior anthropology major from Fayetteville, while taking a break from sifting dirt through mesh screens and sorting for artifacts. “The thing about the field school is you’re getting that real-world experience. Learning how to follow techniques, execute the mechanics of everything, knowing the terminology, is so very beneficial. To be in such an archeology-rich environment and to take advantage of it is incredible.”

Next year, construction will begin on a replacement for the Natural Sciences Building, part of the Connect NC bond initiative for education improvements across the state. The field school is a small part of a broader archaeological study for the new building, and that work, with much consultation, Steere said, has been supported by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Historic Preservation Office, the N.C. Office of State Archaeology, and TRC, an archaeology firm that will begin a large-scale professional excavation in July.

“I was drawn to the field school to see it in action, to get involved and get my hands dirty,” said Windy McKinney of Waynesville, also a senior anthropology student. “I enjoy seeing artifacts in context and the chance to get a different perspective of the landscape. You know, growing up, we didn’t learn that much about Native American history. It wasn’t something that was taught in school. So it’s nice that there’s been a rediscovery of a portion of the past too often overlooked and that now people are understanding the area and its heritage better. Projects like this just help prove it.”

Seen here is a fragment of pottery, probably part of a vessel used for cooking.

Added relevance for the field school comes from the 2017-18 campus learning theme “Cherokee: Connections, Culture, Community.” The interdisciplinary theme is designed to inspire and foster campus conversations and connect students with common and collaborative opportunities for an integrated campuswide experience.

An archaeological technologies class has established spatial controls for the field school and for the work later this summer, which allows researchers to create georeferenced photogrammetric models to document the work. This pinpoint accuracy mapping, with 3D capability, provides reference points for current and future projects.

“This summer’s work corroborates other student field work from the early 2000s and indicates that throughout our campus there are areas that retain significant evidence about Cullowhee’s past,” said Jane Eastman, co-director for the Cherokee Studies Programs and an associate professor of anthropology. “It is great to see some of that information come to light.”