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The Broad Reach site (31CR218) is located in Carteret County, about 5 miles east of the town of Swansboro, and represents the remains of a large coastal Algonkian village that was subject to an extensive salvage excavation. Broad Reach was occupied for several hundred years and provides one of the most complete pictures we have of fishing and shellfish-collecting villages on the North Carolina coast. As part of this picture, the site gives us evidence for Middle Woodland houses, which have been scant at other excavations. It also contained burials and ossuaries that provide a glimpse into health and religious practices during the Middle Woodland. This may have been an area where territories of at least Protohistoric, but possibly also prehistoric groups, overlapped.

Broad Reach itself was excavated by Mark Mathis of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology in 1991 and 192, ahead of a proposed subdivision. More of the sites was later excavated in 2006 by TRC, a cultural resources management firm. From these excavations it was determined that Broad Reach has two main components: an earlier Cape Fear phase occupation (Middle Woodland, 300 B.C. to A.D. 800) and a later White Oak phase occupation (Late Woodland, A.D. 800-1650).

The Middle Woodland Cape Fear phase is a geographically bounded period in the southern coastal region of North Carolina. It includes two distinct ceramic traditions, Hanover and Cape Fear. Hanover ceramics are grog-tempered (grog is ground up pieces of other ceramics that is added to clay to help make the ceramics stronger) and have surfaces that are either stamped with cord-wrapped or fabric-wrapped paddles, or can be smooth. Sites with Hanover pottery occur on the banks and rivers of creeks that drain into the sounds and along shorelines of estuaries, inland swamps, and pocosins (upland swamps). The primary way that Cape Fear ceramics differ from Hanover is that Cape Fear is a sand-tempered ceramic. The Late Woodland White Oak phase (A.D. 800-1500) is characterized by people living in long rectangular houses, who exploited estuarine environments, made shell-tempered pottery, and buried their dead in ossuaries.

History of Excavations

Broad Reach was first identified in 1987 during a survey of the proposed Broad Reach Subdivision and Marina development project. These initial excavations involved intensive surface inspection, shovel testing at 100 ft. intervals, and limited test excavations. Through this, archaeologists identified a “core” area of intact shell midden covering about three acres and a low density scattering of shell and artifacts on the surface/in plowzone over an area covering about 10 acres. At this time, no undisturbed cultural deposits were found in any of the subsurface tests outside of the midden core, so the assumption was that the rest of the site had been disturbed by plowing. Based on this, future archaeological recommendations focused on the shell midden core.

From 1991 to 1992, excavations were completed by Mark Mathis and other archaeologists and volunteers. These excavations were confined to the area of a planned marina, access, channel, and spoil basin. Mathis thought that by working just outside the established site boundary and core midden area, he could examine the less “noisy” habitation area where features might be assigned to temporal components more easily and post patterns could be more easily distinguished. Mathis ended up uncovering hundreds of features, outlines of several structures, and the remains of as many as 30 people in a variety of burial forms.

The last excavations at Broad Reach occurred in 2006 and were run by TRC. Their investigation area included portions of the core midden area and the immediate periphery. Excavations began with what archaeologists call a Phase II, which in this case involved stripping the plowzone off a swath several meters wide along a proposed road system and planned sedimentation ponds. From this stripping, TRC archaeologists found that the Broad Reach site was confined to the southern 250 meters of the landform it was on, which was generally consistent with the boundaries of the shell midden. However, there were other areas extending north of the site that were capped in areas by soil midden and overburden rather than shell midden. As well, in the south-central portion of the site, the shell midden was as much as 25 cm thick. The area of the site with the densest amount of features was primarily below the shell midden. After the data recovery ended, a total of almost nine acres of topsoil, overburden, and midden was stripped and 25 human burials, 16 dog burials, 30 pot busts, 744 shell pits, 1585 soil filled pits, five lithic caches, 53 charcoal pits, and 22,265 post molds were exposed.

What Did Middle Woodland Architecture Look Like?

As we mentioned before, one of the reasons the Broad Reach site is so important is because it provides a lot of information about village architecture from this period. Evidence for architecture comes from postholes and postmolds; these are dark stains left in the soil from the wooden posts used to build houses, buildings, etc. At Broad Reach, oval and circular posthole patterns near archaeological features are associated with Middle Woodland Hanover pottery. The pattern of the postholes suggest circular structures that would have measured about 15 feet in diameter. If they are houses, they probably were semi-permanent shelters constructed while families were busy oystering and fishing. The TRC investigations uncovered one circular, 10 square, and almost 100 rectangular structures at the site. One particularly impressive long house was found that dated to the Late Woodland White Oak phase. This structure was built in a large rectangular style and was over 50 ft. long and 18 ft. wide. It was partitioned by an interior wall, which would have divided the building into two rooms.

The sandy nature of coastal soils makes identification of houses difficult, because the soil stains used to identify features are quickly leached out of the soil. What has been recovered at the Broad Reach site suggests that the posts used to construct house walls were small; rarely over four inches in diameter. In the TRC excavations, the majority of postmolds were about 2.5 inches in diameter. Many of the posts in the walls of structures angled in towards the interior of the building.

Based on the variability of house sizes found during excavations, there was not a standard house size used by the people who lived at Broad Reach. Additionally, although houses are rectangular (and one was called a “long house” above), they are not the same as what we think of as Iroquoian longhouses. Rather than holding a large extended family (as in Iroquois longhouses), the houses at Broad Reach would have comfortably held nuclear families and possibly portions of an extended family. The circular pattern of postholes found by TRC, which was over 8 ft. in diameter, most likely represents a special use structure. The small 6.5 x 6.5 ft. and almost 10 x 10 ft. square structures are also likely to have been special use structures.

Heather Millis, one of TRC’s archaeologists, suggests that the houses seem to have been tailored to the size or status of the family they housed. Almost all the rectangular structures were oriented with the long axis running generally north-south. Prevailing winds at the site during the late spring and summer months keep the area clear of bugs and noticeably cooler than surrounding areas. During the winter and early spring, however, the wind is much stronger and harsher, making the area colder than the surrounding landscape. If doorways were on the short end, then the north-south architecture would have provided more protection from the elements during the colder months. Additionally, the close spacing of the posts would have resulted in stronger walls and may have provided more protection from the winter wind.

What Do We Know About Religious Practices at Broad Reach?

The numerous burials uncovered at Broad Reach provide us with some insight into the religious practices of the people living there. The burials found at the site include primary burials (people placed directly into the ground) and ossuaries (burials of people whose bodies were allowed to decay before their bones were placed in the ground).

The primary burials at Broad Reach are from the Middle Woodland phase of the site. Middle Woodland Cape Fear phase burials include the flexed remains of two individuals who were interred with a number of artifacts. The items that were included as burials offerings with these individuals consist of two Hanover pottery vessels; at least eight turtle shells, of which six were stacked together in a bundle; a deer antler and leg bone; a beaver tooth; and a conch shell.

The ossuaries at Broad Reach consist of two distinct types. The first is a group burial, which contains the randomly mixed remains from four to six individuals and a cremation. None of the bones were clustered or articulated; this indicates that the deceased’s bodies were allowed to decay elsewhere and once the bones were clean, they were all gathered up and deposited together. Associated artifacts included eight copper beads randomly distributed among the bones. The second type of ossuary at Broad Reach contained individual burials. Nine other adults from the Late Woodland White Oak phase were represented by distinct, articulated bundles covered by a layer of clam shells (articulated is a term that means the bones were found in anatomically correct positions). Several potsherds were found at the edge of the shell mantle; it is believed that these were used to excavate the burial pit. Most White Oak phase ossuaries rarely contain artifacts; however, two of the Broad Reach bundles were accompanied by grave goods. One had two shell-tempered White Oak pottery vessels, a small ground-stone cup, cut shell disk beads, clusters of marginella shell beads, the remains of a small dog, and a turtle carapace. The other bundle contained a large number of marginella shell beads. Some of the burials had individuals in a flexed position, while others contained secondary bundles of bones. Three contained individuals that appear to have been partially disinterred after burial. Overall, the two distinct types of ossuaries at Broad Reach are suggestive of differences in social standing of the buried individuals. The larger ossuary with clustered bundles and elaborate graves offerings may be a higher status group than the smaller, fragmented burials without extensive grave offerings.

According to Mark Mathis, there are other differences in social rank that may be represented within the ossuary populations. The condition of bones in ossuaries is determined by how long and in what fashion bodies were treated after death and prior to burial. If bodies were placed in a simple scaffold for a long period of time, the completeness and condition of the skeleton would be very different than that of a body placed in a well-constructed and maintained charnel house (such as those depicted by John White). Individuals placed in pits that were subsequently re-excavated and the remains removed for mass burial would also be skeletally affected. Mathis suggests that an indicator of an individual’s status may be the completeness of the remains that end up in the ossuary. More complete skeletal remains may indicate higher social status since it indicates an increased level of care and attention given to the remains prior to burial.

Another interesting aspect of the Broad Reach site is the dog burials uncovered during the 2006 TRC excavations. The remains of 16 dogs were recovered, all in relatively shallow soil-filled pits. Half were laid in the pit on their side, while the other half were disarticulated to the point that it seems possible they were defleshed prior to their burials. One particularly intriguing part of the dog burials were pathological changes found on some of their vertebrae (back bones) indicating that several of the dogs carried or hauled heavy loads. Additionally, stable isotope analysis showed all the dogs at a diet heavily composed of maize, which must have come from the people they were living with at Broad Reach.


Mathis, Mark A.
1992 • Mortuary Processes at the Broad Reach Site. Office of State Archaeology, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Section, NC Division of Archives and History.

Millis, Heather
2011 • Broad Reach Revisited: Preliminary Results of the 2006 Data Recovery Excavations. The Archaeology of North Carolina: Three Archaeological Symposia, edited by Charles R. Ewen, Thomas R. Whyte, and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr. North Carolina Archaeological Council Publication 30:6-1—6-13.

Ward, Trawick H., and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr.
1998 • Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.