Up a gravel road from downtown Hillsborough, past a row of houses tucked into the trees, around a curve and into a sort of green serenity—a haven of grass, brush and trees as far as the eye can see and nothing but the chirping birds and babbling Eno River to hear—a sudden pop of color beyond a bend draws the eye.
Then a bustle of motion.
Hard at work, a team of researchers and students with the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill break the stillness, diligently and meticulously digging to uncover the remains of an ancient Native American village on land currently owned by Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.
“This field is just loaded with archeological sites that all date to different times, so it’s like a time capsule or collection of time capsules all in one field,” Vin Steponaitis, director of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology, said.
The expedition has come full circle, in a way. The organization began digging in what’s called Racetrack Bend of the Eno River in what has become known as the Hillsborough Archeological District in 1938 and 1940, which coincides with the anniversary of the research lab.
“This is our 75th year,” Brett Riggs with the Research Laboratories of Archaeology said. “This is sort of a commemorative excavation here.”
Riggs worked at the site in 2002, and his colleague, Steve Davis, was part of the excavation teams in 1983 and 1984.
“It is [rare],” Riggs said of his ability to return to the same dig. “That’s somewhat unusual. There are many times you don’t get that opportunity to revisit the sites, but these sites are well protected from development and vandalism and things, so we have that opportunity over and over again.”
This latest excavation, located off of Burnside Drive by the Eno, ran in early June and focused on continuing to flesh out the picture of what is called the Wall Site. Previous digs had started documenting outlines of huts, garbage pits and village walls, and the team this time around dug on the northern edge of the town.
“Excavations to date have probably uncovered about half of the town, and we think we’re at the northern perimeter and uncovering part of the palisade line there, but we’ll see,” Riggs said. “This will tell whether it’s actually the edge of the town or not because there are multiple palisade lines as the town expanded. More houses were built; the palisade line was expanded, so this may not be the outer limit of the town.
“…The soils that are being dry sifted here are soils that have been disturbed by plowing, and so everything in it has been homogenized by plowing. The soils that they’re water screening are intact sediments that have not been disturbed by plowing that are in this area beneath that plowed soil, that are intact deposits with archeological materials in it.”
The Wall Site was the first village discovered in 1938 but is not the earliest in the field. Riggs said UNC joined a statewide effort in the 1930s to uncover native villages, and the university knew of an Occaneechi settlement documented by the explorer John Lawson in 1701 along the Great Trading Path, which crossed the Eno River where Hillsborough is now. Early excavations uncovered the Wall Site and assumed it was the same village Lawson wrote about based on the easily identifiable pottery remains and animal bone.
“In 1938, 1940, the investigations were focused on trying to identify the village that Lawson saw in 1701,” Riggs said. “In fact, right at that time period, efforts were being made to find multiple villages that he’d seen all through the piedmont. Because this was the most prominent site in the bottom, it was assumed at that time that this was the old Occaneechi town.”
In the 1980s, however, another dig uncovered a village just a short walk west of the Wall Site. Excavation soon revealed that settlement dated to the late 1600s, early 1700s—whereas the Wall Site existed about 200 years before that—and more closely matched Lawson’s accounts.
“It wasn’t until the 1980s that the actual Occaneechi town was discovered at the end of the trail there,” Riggs said. “… The Occaneechi town, which we call the Fredericks Site, was occupied in the late 1600s and early 1700s, probably abandoned before 1710.”
The Occaneechi people came from along the Roanoke River in Virginia, moving down to the North Carolina Piedmont during Bacon’s Rebellion. The village in Hillsborough actually overlapped with a third settlement—probably descendents of the people from the Wall Site, Riggs said—which dates to the mid to late 1600s.
“It probably represents folks who were the descendents of the people who had the Wall Site because a lot of the material culture is the same whereas the material culture at the Occaneechi village is somewhat different,” he said. “… So we have this span of occupation that’s represented here in the Racetrack Bend from about AD 1000 up until the early 1700s here, so it’s quite a phenomenal record here concentrated in this one little area in Hillsborough.”
At the last excavation before this one—which also concentrated on the Wall Site—Riggs said they found a few glass beads along the northern edge. Since the Wall Site predates European occupation, the archeologist said he thought there might be another village a little bit further north.
“There are villages all through here,” he said. “People lived here for a long time because this is a great place to live. … These were the best soils for agriculture around here and the easiest for people to garden. After about AD 1000, this was a real destination for people to come.”