Students recover artifacts
Archaeology field school students recover artifacts from the Cherokee mound site located on Western's campus near Forsyth and Killian buildings.

CULLOWHEE – In the shadow of Western Carolina University’s academic buildings, students are sifting through dirt, one spoonful at a time, to learn about the lives of the Cherokee who once inhabited the Cullowhee Valley.

An archaeological dig got under way on Western’s campus in May, when students enrolled in the university’s archaeology field school began excavating three four-foot-deep pits located near Forsyth and Killian buildings.

Taught by Jane Eastman, Western Carolina assistant professor of anthropology, the field school is focusing on the remains of a Cherokee village and mound that once stood intact on the campus. The work represents a valuable opportunity for the 10 students enrolled in the course to take part in an actual archeological dig, Eastman said.

The mound was leveled in 1956 to make way for an academic building. The goal of the current excavation has been to dig down through layers of soil to the re-deposited mound fill, and then to dig down even deeper, into soil that has never been disturbed, to look for remains of Cherokee village structures and gain knowledge about the day-to-day activities of the people who lived in the area.

The intact mound was thought to have been examined by researchers in the 1880s, and based on that detail, the university leveled the mound to begin construction on what is now the Killian Building, Eastman said.

The current archaeological dig is not the first to be conducted on the campus. In 1972, the field school excavated a Cherokee structure from the area where the Ramsey Center is now located, Eastman said.

The Cherokee sometimes built earthen mounds to serve as platforms for their council houses. Often, for ceremonial reasons, the council house would be burned down and another council house built on top of the former one. That would result in the mound increasing in size, Eastman said.

The mound on Western’s campus is not believed to have been a “burial mound,” but important Cherokee leaders were often buried in the floors of the council houses. No human remains have been found in the re-deposited mound fill during the current dig, Eastman said.

The excavation pits measure 2m by 2m (~6ft) across and 4 ½ feet deep. The open pits have revealed layers of soil easily distinguished by varying colors and textures. After digging through a top layer of topsoil, students worked their way through a second layer consisting of clay fill that can be traced back to a 1970s construction project. The third layer holds gravel from a 1960s parking lot, and the fourth layer is the actual mound fill, East said.

The fifth layer used to be surface soil that was cultivated by Dave Rogers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Underneath that layer is the undisturbed soil of centuries past, Eastman said.

Artifacts recovered from the mound fill include fragments of Qualla pottery, spearpoints, small pieces of burned animal bones, small arrowheads and a 1935 buffalo nickel. The nickel provides clear evidence that the mound fill was disturbed and re-deposited in the current excavation area, Eastman said. Others layers of soil have revealed much more modern artifacts, including the heel of a boot, plastic foam coffee cups and pocket combs.

Eastman said the most important items found have been evidence of intact structural remains that indicate that there was, in fact, a Cherokee village at the site. “The most significant thing is the potential to have intact structural remains,” she said. “We can learn a lot about what happened in the past from the structures.”

With the archaeology field school coming to an end, Jane Brown, co-supervisor of the excavation has enlisted the help of North Carolina high school juniors and seniors enrolled in Western’s Summer Ventures program to continue the excavation project through mid-July. Throughout the process, Eastman has been in close contact with officials from the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

When the field work is done, Eastman will classify and analyze the artifacts, incorporating that work into a course she will teach in the fall on archaeological lab methods. Even before that, some of the artifacts will be put on display in Western’s Mountain Heritage Center, as part of a display on Cherokee-related cultural resources on campus. The collection also will be on display in the McKee Building archives.

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Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2003
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