BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After a week of conducting field surveys, an archaeological firm hired by Brunswick County will walk away with just a handful of Native American artifacts.
The firm’s visit was triggered by Brunswick County’s August 2018 Coastal Area Management Act permit application to build a 16.5-acre waterway park just outside Holden Beach.
Mike O’Neal, senior archaeologist for Archaeological Consultants of the Carolinas, Inc., said his team’s findings at the site aren’t exactly revelatory.
“Native American sites, they’re kind of everywhere,” O’Neal said Wednesday, at the end of his last site visit. “They’re more common than people think — they’re not the big villages that people think. They’re just little camps or places they’re only there for a short time.”
Findings collected at the site include flakes of chert (a quartz-based rock that can, like flint, be broken into blade-like pieces) and pieces of pottery. The artifacts will be cleaned, studied, and written up in a report that gets shared with the State Historic Preservation Office.
When archaeologists visit
Because major Coastal Area Management Act permits require federal oversight, applicants must come into compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.
After reviewing Brunswick County’s permit application for the waterway park, the State Historic Preservation Office notified the Wilmington Division of Coastal Management office in December 2018. The state’s letter cited the “high probability that prehistoric archaeological sites” were present on the subject property.
Archaeologists get looped in if there’s federal money or a federal permit involved.
“If it’s your own private property — we don’t like it as archeologists — but it’s your property, you can do what you want,” O’Neal said. (Owners also have the option to gift the artifacts in a deed over to the state for educational use, which archaeologists encourage.)
The state flagged the county’s site because of its topographic and hydrological features. Simply put, the future park is on high ground, next to marshes and near the water — places where Native American artifacts are often found.
Brunswick County’s Parks and Recreation Director, Aaron Perkins, said more artifacts were located at the Brunswick Nature Park in Winnabow.
“Near Town Creek, they found a little bit more stuff there,” he said. “It’s high bluffs, easy for someone to settle on.”
Brunswick County’s park plans include bike and nature trails, public bathrooms, picnic area, playground, kayak launch, and floating dock.
Those plans probably won’t be held up by this week’s minor findings; O’Neal said it’s unlikely his firm, based out of Clayton, N.C., will do any more digging. “There’s not a ton of artifacts here,” he said.
Of what was found, O’Neal said small pieces of pottery will be the most telling. The pieces feature a decorative pattern, which helps archaeologists determine how old they are. O’Neal will also inspect the pieces’ temper, which is a material like sand, rocks or shells mixed in with clay in the firing process, to pinpoint an age.
The chert flakes found are just “the trash that you make when you’re trying to make a stone tool,” O’Neal said. Flakes are the most often-found artifacts uncovered during surveys.
Without hitting the lab, O’Neal said the artifacts found are from the Woodland Period. According to the National Parks Service, the Woodland Period marks pre-Columbian Native American occupations in eastern North America roughly between 500 B.C. and 1,100 A.D.
Every 100 feet or so, O’Neal and his team dug one foot wide, three feet deep holes. These “shovel tests” are laid out in a grid pattern that covers the whole area. If something is found, the interval is shortened in a systematic approach that narrows down where artifacts might be located. Only two tests out of 14 holes dug to delineate a site turned up any artifacts, O’Neal said.
“There are a lot of shovel tests you dig that you have nothing in them,” he said.
When making a final recommendation, O’Neal said his team is tasked with answering one question: “Can we answer research questions with this site?”
If they aren’t sure, their recommendation could result in more testing. After that round of testing, if archaeologists still aren’t sure, they could be sent in for even more work. “That’s the level that people think of as a ‘dig,'” O’Neal said.
After surveying Native American burial grounds near the northern coast of the state, where a beaded shell necklace was found around remains, still intact, O’Neal’s pottery findings in Brunswick County aren’t revelatory.
“It’s cool, but it’s not the cool thing that everybody thinks of,” he said.
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