Walking In the Shadows of 500 Years of History

DURHAM— Bird songs and the sounds of rushing water from the Eno River are what walkers usually hear on the Eno Trail, not far from historic downtown Hillsborough. But for five weeks in the spring, the scrape of shovels and cries of discovery blended into Mother Nature’s natural chorus. Students and professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Archaeology Department were excavating what is known as The Wall site. 

It’s the location of a Native American village that dates to the year 1500. “We’re working in what was the southern end of the village where a trash midden was located,” explains Heather Lapham, Ph.D., a research archaeologist who teaches the field archaeology program. “"A midden is a trash deposit scattered over a surface and it gives us a really good baseline of what Native American life ways looked like here in the central Piedmont on the eve of European colonization." 

Archaeologists say ancestral Shakori and Eno Indians occupied the village in the 1500s and early 1600s, just before European settlers arrived in the area. Previous digs revealed several circular alignments of postholes where houses once stood, evidence for multiple defensive walls (called palisades or stockades) surrounding the village, and trash deposits along the edge of the settlement. 

Researchers say it’s important to understanding Native life prior to the arrival of European settlers because it helps to then identify and understand the cultural changes that took place later in time as a result of Indian-European interactions. 

The collection of arrowheads, animal bones, pottery fragments, jewelry and other items recovered in the excavation will be taken back to campus. The items will be studied and sorted by a class in the fall. Once the field work is finished, the site is filled in.

—Frank Graff

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.