Along the Northern Coast, the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks are separated from the shoreline by the broad shallow estuarine waters of Pamlico, Croatan, Albemarle, and Currituck Sounds. The shoreline is broken into a plethora of large and small bays and peninsulas as the numerous rivers and streams, including the Neuse, Pamlico, and Chowan Rivers, empty into the sounds. During the Paleoindian, Archaic, and Woodland, and Contact periods, the archaeology of the Northern Coast is much like the rest of the Coastal Plain and Coast regions, which is reflected in the content of the Detailed Regional Overview. Minor differentiations between the Northern and Southern regions can be found during the Middle and Late Woodland periods, when differences emerge in ceramic typologies.
The Paleoindian is the time of the earliest generally accepted arrival of people in the southeastern United States – about 16000 years ago, or 14000 B.C. Although earlier migrations of people into the New World have been hypothesized, currently there is no firm evidence of people anywhere on the continental United States prior to 14000 B.C.
Our level of understanding of the Paleoindian period across the state is highly uneven, due to both the history of North Carolina archaeology and environmental and geological factors.
Paleoindian in the Southeast is divided into Early, Middle, and Late subperiods.
Paleoindian in the Southeast is divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods. Spear points of the Early Paleoindian period (14000 – 9000 B.C.) are large, fluted lanceolates, very similar to the classic Clovis points of the West. What we know about the earliest inhabitants of North Carolina is based almost entirely on surface finds of these points. Concentrations of Early Paleoindian points have been noted in the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Ohio River valleys, as well as western South Carolina, southern Virginia, and the northern Piedmont of North Carolina.
In the Middle Paleoindian period (9000 – 8500 B.C.) the number of spear points increases considerably and regional variability in spear point forms emerge. The Cumberland, Suwanee, and Simpson point types are thought to be typical of this period. One thing all have in common is a narrowing or “waisting” at the base.
The Late Paleoindian period (8500 – 7900 B.C.) shows increased population growth. Dalton points are the diagnostic Late Paleoindian point type. By the end of the Paleoindian, Holocene climatic conditions prevailed and the basic hunting and gathering lifeway that persisted for the next 5000 years was set.
Paleoindian Settlement and Subsistence
Paleoindian settlers in the Southeast found a rapidly changing landscape. Current evidence suggests that many of extinctions of Late Pleistocene megafauna – including the horse, mastodon, and mammoth – were complete by 8500 B.C.
East of the Mississippi River almost no Paleoindian tools have been found with these animals. Environmental differences between the Eastern and Western parts of the continent may have necessitated very different adaptations. By the Middle Paleoindian period, if not earlier, the subsistence pattern was probably very similar to that of the Early Archaic period.
Most southeastern Paleoindian sites where more than a single point has been found are related to stone-quarrying activities. This pattern reflects a generalized foraging where groups rarely engaged in subsistence activities that produced recognizable traces in the archaeological record.
Paleoindian on the Coastal Plain and Coast
Ocean levels were lowered by 150 feet or more during the last glacial period. This means that during Paleoindian times the coast was 230 to 300 miles from the Piedmont. Today, the Paleoindian sites from 10000 to 16000 years ago near the coast lie submerged; Paleoindian sites found near today’s coast represent adaptations to what was then the central Coastal Plain.
The Coastal Plain probably had deciduous forests dominated by beech and hickory. Climate was cooler and wetter than day, perhaps very similar to the modern climate of New York.
Paleoindian points have been found only sporadically in the Coast and Coastal Plain, with less than fifty sites known. In part this is because the region has not been surveyed as extensively as other regions of North Carolina.
The Archaic (8000 – 1000 B.C.) is an overarching time period covering over half of the time-span people have lived in North Carolina. This vast time has been explored by finding well-preserved deposits in rock-shelters and stratified, deeply-buried open sites in alluvial floodplains. The Archaic is generally thought of as a period dominated by nomadic, relatively small bands pursuing a hunting and gathering way of life, but there is evidence that some Archaic people settled into larger and more permanent sites relatively early.
From the coast to the mountains, the Archaic began with wandering bands of hunters and gatherers who faced a wide variety of changing environmental conditions. These bands occasionally came together at favored locations along major river valleys, but most of their time was spent in small groups scattered across the landscape foraging for food and raw materials.
Toward the end of the Archaic, large groups began to settle down and live most, if not all year in areas rich in raw material and food resources. This settled life spawned the beginnings of plant domestication and use of pottery, hallmarks of the succeeding Woodland.
The Archaic in the Coastal Plain and Coast
Numerous Archaic sites have been discovered on the North Carolina Coastal Plain and Coast. Unlike the Piedmont, where Archaic sites with stratified contexts have been excavated, the Coastal Archaic is known primarily from surface collections.
Diagnostic spear point styles recognized in the Piedmont are duplicated in the artifact collections from the coast.
Archaic sites (base camps and small temporary sites) are widely scattered and can be found nearly anywhere near water. The number of sites generally increased through time. During the Late Archaic period, settlement shifted away from upland tributary streams toward the mouths of major rivers. Here hunting and fishing led to larger and more sedentary camps where pottery making and horticulture began.
Three interrelated innovations marked the end of the Archaic and the beginning of the Woodland: pottery-making, semi-sedentary villages, and horticulture. All had their origins in the Archaic but became the norm during Woodland times.
The widespread appearance of pottery-making is viewed as going hand in hand with an increasing reliance on seed crops and more permanent settlement. Domestication of early cultigens laid the groundwork for later acceptance of tropical cultigens. Corn was not widely grown until after A.D. 700 and did not become an important food crop in many areas until after A.D. 1000. With the introduction of beans around A.D. 1200, the eastern agricultural triad of corn, beans, and squash was completed.
In North Carolina, the Woodland is divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods. Along the coast and through much of the Piedmont, the Late Woodland continues until Contact, while in the Appalachian Summit, Western Foothills, and the Southern Piedmont, Mississippian and Mississippian-influenced societies developed after A.D. 1000.
The Woodland cultures of the North Carolina Piedmont were only marginally influenced by cultural traditions elsewhere in the eastern United States. The rich and elaborate Hopewell and Swift Creek cultures that influenced wide areas of the Southeast had little impact on cultural developments in the Piedmont. And the powerful Mississippian chiefdoms that later dominate most of the Southeast were only able to penetrate the southern fringe of the Piedmont.
The Woodland Period on the Coast and Coastal Plain
The North Carolina Coastal Plain and Coast are divided into northern and southern parts. In terms of subsistence, the northern region provided far better access to estuarine resources than the south, but the south offered an environment better protected against the extremes of wind and cold.
The Woodland in the Coastal regions of North Carolina was marked by continuity, and the changes that occurred were typically gradual in nature. There were few differences between Late Archaic and Early Woodland cultural traditions and Woodland changes in technology, subsistence, and political organization seem almost imperceptible, reflecting few outside influences. Differences between Middle Woodland and Late Woodland cultural patterns are sharp, but then from A.D. 800 until the first contacts with Europeans was again a period of stability and continuity.
Early Woodland (1000 – 300 B.C.)
Most of what is known about the Early Woodland period in the coastal regions comes from ceramic studies. The earliest ceramics in North Carolina are typologically similar to Late Archaic Stallings-ware pottery of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts.
Antecedents to Early Woodland Pottery
Fiber tempered Late Archaic Stallings Island pottery is found as far north as the Tar and Chowan River drainages, but is generally restricted to south of the Neuse River. In the Middle Atlantic region, the earliest pottery is a steatite-tempered ware called Marcy Creek and similar sherds have occasionally been found north of the Neuse River.
Thom’s Creek pottery, which is generally thought to be roughly contemporaneous with Stallings ware, has only been reported from the Southern Coastal region.
Deep Creek and New River Phases
At the beginning of the Early Woodland period, pottery made with a sand-tempered paste and a cordmarked exterior began to be made throughout the Coastal region.
In the north, this pottery is called the Deep Creek series. The Deep Creek series is related to the Stony Creek series of southern Virginia. Large triangular points similar to the Roanoke Triangular type at the Gaston site are believed to be associated with Deep Creek ceramics.
In the Southern Coastal Plain, the New River pottery series is thought to date to the same time period as Deep Creek. Although the vibrant Early Woodland Deptford ceramic tradition borders New River phase to the south, Deptford influences are not apparent.
Much more information is needed before Deep Creek and New River phases can be firmly defined along the coast.
Middle Woodland (300 B.C. – A.D. 800)
Two Middle Woodland phases have been defined in North Carolina’s coastal regions: Mount Pleasant and Cape Fear. Mount Pleasant is the phase that is connected with the Northern Coastal Region. Mount Pleasant pottery is tempered with sand and varying amounts of grit and pebble-sized particles. Surface finishes include fabric impressed, cordmarked, net impressed, and smoothed.
Mount Pleasant pottery is similar to the Early Woodland Deep Creek ware, which it probably descends from directly.
Sites that contain Mount Pleasant ceramics have been found in both the Tidewater and the inner Coastal Plain of the Northern Coastal region. Most coastal sites are large shell middens occupied repeatedly by extended family groups, where exploitation of terrestrial resources was secondary to shellfish collecting and fishing. No Mount Pleasant sites have been sufficiently excavated to understand how large they were or what they looked like.
Flexed and semiflexed graves have been found at Mount Pleasant sites. One grave in Bertie County was accompanied by seven small triangular arrowpoints.
Late Woodland Period (A.D. 800 – 1650)
During the Late Woodland period, physical, cultural, and linguistic differences emerged that can be traced to the ethnohistorically documented tribes who occupied the coast at the time of European contact.
Along the entire length of the coastal Tidewater region of North Carolina, the Late Woodland period is marked by the introduction of shell-tempered pottery. In the Northern Coastal region this practice continued into the Historic period. Late Woodland people of the inner Coastal Plain made pottery that was more similar to that of their Middle Woodland ancestors, with small pebbles added as temper.
The region from the Tidewater coast to the barrier islands, and from Virginia to as far south as Onslow County, was dominated by Algonkian-speaking groups. These groups were responsible for most of the shell-tempered pottery along the coast.
In the Northern Coastal region, the Algonkians were bordered on the west by the Iroquois-speaking Tuscarora tribes. Occupying the inner Coastal Plain from the fall line to the Tidewater, the Tuscaroras made pebble-tempered pottery.
In the Southern Coastal region were Siouan-speaking peoples related to the hill tribes of the Piedmont, whose ceramic traditions are less understood.
Colington Phase (A.D. 800-1600)
The distribution of shell-tempered Colington phase ceramics coincides with the coastal Algonkians known to have lived north of Onslow County.
Colington series pottery is typically fabric impressed, simple stamped, or plain. Incised decorations are often placed near the vessel rim. Colington pottery is closely affiliated with the Townsend series and Roanoke Simple Stamped ceramics in southwestern Virginia.
Colington phase sites contain a variety of stone, bone, and shell artifacts. Small triangular arrowpoints, polished celts, abraders, and grinders are fashioned from stone. Fishhooks, punches, awls and pins are made from animal bone. Conch shells are used for hoes and picks. Marginella shell beads are common, and freshwater pearls and a copper disk have been reported.
The nature of Colington phase settlements over the 800 years that comprise the phase is difficult to characterize. Maize farming probably became important sometime after A.D. 1100 and larger populations with complex societies developed after A.D. 1200 or later. By the time of earliest European contact, the Algonkians had grown into ranked societies or chiefdoms, each with a hereditary ruler who lived at the capital village of his territory.
The average Algonkian town at the end of the sixteenth century may have contained twelve to eighteen longhouses, with a population of roughly 120 to 200 people. The towns were located along major streams, sounds, and estuaries where subsistence tasks, including farming, hunting, gathering, fishing, and shellfish collecting were carried out.
Two traits stand out in defining these coastal Algonkians – longhouses and the practice of burying large numbers of people in mass graves or ossuaries after exposure of the dead in a charnal house.
There are excellent descriptions and drawings of North Carolina Algonkian communities in the northern coastal region. These were provided by English explorers between A.D. 1584 and 1587. The village of Pomeiock (Pomeiooc), for instance, was located on the mainland side of Pamlico Sound next to Lake Mattamuskeet. This village consisted of a tight cluster of longhouses in a concentric circle within a stockade surrounding a central plaza.
In contrast, the village of Secoton was located on the bank of the Pamlico River. This village had an open arrangement of longhouses. Individuals are depicted in various activities, including praying, dancing, and eating. Three cornfields with crops in various stages of maturity are shown.
A great deal of archaeology still needs to be done on Colington phase villages to integrate the historic records and archaeological record.
Accordingly, the beginnings of these arrivals do not necessarily herald the beginnings of significant changes in the histories of North Carolina’s tribes. Overall, however, this was a time of sweeping and often devastating change.
Contact Along the North Carolina Coast
The archaeology of Contact in North Carolina’s coastal regions is strongly supplemented by early English exploration and settlement which began here in the late 1500s. As in the Piedmont, Contact archaeology near the coast involves terminal Late Woodland societies entering into trade and political relationships with Europeans.
Following the failed late 16th-century attempt by Sir Walter Raleigh to colonize the North Carolina coast, the successful settlement at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 gave the English the toehold they needed to expand. However, even with the successful founding of Jamestown, North Carolina’s Indians were given a fifty-year respite before having to deal with Europeans again.
Around 1650, Virginia settlers began to push southward along the coast, starting with the Albemarle region. For the most part, settlers did not venture very far inland at first. Instead they spread southward and stayed near the coast. By 1675 the southern shore of Albemarle was settled and by 1691 newcomers were settling along Pamlico River. Soon after the beginning of the 18th century the area of the Neuse River was settled.
Land-grabbing by aggressive colonists and disruptions caused by the illegal, but lively, trade in Indian slaves that had sprung up after the founding of Charles Town in South Carolina, soon caused an unbearable state of relations between the colonists and tribes. This friction ultimately lead to the Tuscarora War, in which two thousand Tuscarora were killed or sold into slavery. Many of the remnants of the Tuscarora tribe moved to Pennsylvania and New York.
In coastal regions archaeology is just beginning to supplement early historic accounts. An Algonkian village thought to be Croaton has been excavated on Hatteras Island. Amity, a mid-17th century village near Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County, has been excavated, and work has been done on the historic Tuscarora communities and forts. There is a great deal yet to discover about the archaeology of Contact along the coast.
Pottery-making, subsistence, and patterns of settlement seem to have changed little during the first part of Contact along the coast. Ceramics similar to those of the Cashie, Colington, and White Oak/Oak Island phases continued to be made. Longhouses were still used and a mixed economy based on hunting, gathering, fishing, shell-fish, and agriculture continued. However, aboriginal life was rapidly disrupted as outsiders moved in. By 1701 John Lawson was able to observe that the coastal tribes were “very much decreased.”
Despite the devastation of contact, North Carolina today is the home of the largest Native American population east of the Mississippi River. The robust cultural diversity seen in the archaeological record of the last 12,000 years survives today in the tribal traditions of North Carolina’s native peoples.