WCU archaeology dig

Etta Farlow, left, and Caley Kelley sift soil from a shovel test site to search for Cherokee artifacts on the WCU campus.

By Beth Lawrence

Some students at Western Carolina University are reaching across the centuries to get a bit of hands-on archaeological experience this summer on the college’s campus.

A group of 11 students are involved in an archaeological field techniques class. The course began July 5 and ends Aug. 6. Ben Steere, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Cherokee Studies program at WCU, is leading the project.

Students have spent seven hours a day digging in several sites to find artifacts related to the Cherokee culture. The digs are in front of Norton Residence Hall.

The class is helping students learn how to properly map and dig a historic site.

The group went to the field and marked off the proposed dig site. Every 15 meters (about 16-and-a-half yards), the students dug a test pit and screened the soil, or shook it through a sieve, to look for possible artifacts. While doing that, they have recorded the layers of the soil. Those layers could provide scientists clues as to the land’s past uses.

“They’re learning archaeological field methods and are actually doing a really important archaeological project for the university,” Steere said. “They have done a full scale archeology project, starting from mapping and surveying to full scale excavation.”

The exploration is taking place in advance of university plans to build new intramural sports fields.

“Before they do that, they want to make sure they’re not disturbing possible Cherokee artifacts, possible graves, houses and all things that we can identify archaeologically,” Steere said.

The class is part of the school’s anthropology degree program, but drew in students majoring in history as well.

Many of the students came into the class with what Steere calls a “good background” in Cherokee culture.

Kaley Kelly is an anthropology major with a concentration in forensic anthropology. Kelly appreciated learning the technical and practical application of anthropology and the history of the area.

“I love this area and to have that deeper connection with the history that’s so much older than you could possibly imagine,” Kelly said. “To hold something in my hand that somebody made a thousand years ago is mind-blowing. It’s a great opportunity to, I guess in a way, give back to help learn more about this area and the people who made it home for so long.”

Kelly plans to work in forensic anthropology, but said she could see herself doing archaeological fieldwork in the Southeastern United States.

Steere gives lectures in the field as students come across relics or areas of soil that might indicate a certain type of use such as a fire pit or post hole.

“As part of the class, we’re really doing hands-on learning. We’re finding ancestral Cherokee artifacts and then talking about what they’re used for, and they’re learning artifact identification as they go,” he said.

The group has found artifacts dating to the archaic period, or Meso-Indian period from 8000 to 1000 BC; the Mississippian period from 800 AD to 1600, and Pisgah phase pottery dating to 1,200 AD, and middle to late Qualla phase pottery from the 1500s to the 1700s.

“At least those (last) three occupations look pretty well defined so thousands of years of ancestral Cherokee occupation out here on this site,” Steere said.

The relics will be cleaned, analyzed, cataloged and stored at the university’s curation facility. WCU works closely with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian’s Historic Preservation Office. The tribe was involved in planning the dig and representatives have visited the site to see the work being done.