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Coweeta Creek (31MA34) is a site that is located on the west bank of the Little Tennessee River, near its confluence with Coweeta Creek, and is located in Macon County. The site itself is made up of a Middle Qualla phase (A.D. 1450 – 1700) townhouse mound and associated village, as well as Late Qualla phase townhouses (A.D. 1700 – 1838).

History of Excavations

The first excavations at Coweeta Creek occurred as part of the Cherokee Project, between 1965 and 1971. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the mound was completely excavated by UNC archaeologists. Excavations also uncovered parts of the village associated with the earliest townhouse construction phase.

What Did Archaeologists Find?

After the completion of excavations in 1971, a total of six separate townhouse floors, one stacked on top of the other, had been carefully excavated. Each floor was separated from each other by only a few inches of sand and refuse. All but the earliest townhouse floor were also associated with European trade artifacts, primarily glass beads.

The earliest townhouse at Coweeta creek was built on the ground surface. It had a square shape with rounded corners, and was approximately 36 feet in length on each side. Parallel trenches oriented perpendicular to the townhouse walls showed that the house had a vestibule entrance (a smaller space that leads into a large and often interior space). The roof was supported by large, interior posts and inside there was a centrally located, puddle-clay hearth. The next four townhouse structures were similar in size and orientation to the first one, while the last townhouse was roughly circular. In most cases, the hearths and entry trenches of each structure were rebuilt directly above the previous ones. Additionally, all of the vestibule entrances opened to the southeast.

All of the townhouses were burned, which actually helped to preserve information about some of the structures. The floors of the townhouses were made of prepared clay, while benches were arranged around the walls and covered with cane mats. As the roof beams, timbers, and boards burned, the clay-lined (“daubed”) walls collapsed, covering the floors and debris from the roofs. The layer of fire-hardened clay from the walls helped to seal in the underlying remains. Once a townhouse was burned, just enough soil was brought in to cover the remains and create a smooth, flat surface. On top of that surface, a new townhouse was then built.

Although a stockade was never found at Coweeta Creek, only a small area was excavated around the edge of the site in a place that was severely eroded. The village itself consisted of houses clustered around the plaza and mound, which suggests that there probably was a palisade that enclosed the village. The village excavations are an area that is actually older than the later stages of townhouse construction. None of the houses, associated features, or burials contain European trade artifacts, suggesting that there was a shift in settlement patterns during the historic period. Before European arrival, it seems like Middle Qualla phase people lived in villages that were tightly clustered around a centrally located townhouse and plaza. After European contact, it looks like Late Qualla people dispersed somewhat. However, the fact that they continued to use the Coweeta Creek mound and townhouses indicates that they still had a strong sense of community despite living further apart.

In total, eighty-three burials were excavated at Coweeta Creek, containing the remains of eighty-seven individuals placed in two ways: simple, straight-sided pits or in pits with cylindrical shafts and side chambers. Most people were placed with their heads to the southeast. Twenty-nine people were accompanied by grave goods. The most frequent of these were items made of shell – small and large cut-shell beads, olivella beads, and ear and hair pins; some burials even contained engraved gorgets, pendants, and masks made from conch shells. Also recovered were stone and clay pipes, pottery vessels, rattles, red ochre, and freshwater pearls.

Most graves were located in the village area, associated with houses, and sometimes beneath or near hearths. No European trade artifacts were found with any of the burials, supporting the idea that the houses and earliest townhouse predate European contact. A cluster of nine graves was placed in the central area of the townhouse floors and appear to be associated with the two earliest construction phases. Seven were adults, including six men and one woman. Two of the men had conch-shell face masks buried with them. One of the children’s graves had shell pendants and beads, while the other had shell ear pins, a shell mask gorget, freshwater pearls, and a pottery vessel.

On either side of the townhouse entrances were two additional groups of burials, located on the side of the mound. While no European artifacts were found in any of these burials, they are thought to date to the Late Qualla phase of the site, when European glass beads were found on the townhouse floors. The first cluster of burials contained two men, one woman, and a small child, all with an assortment of burial goods. One of the men had a particularly rich collection of goods, including: a quiver of seven arrows represented by small triangular stone arrow points and the dark stains of their rotted shafts, four shell pins, a string of olivella beads, two strands of large and small cut shell beads, fourteen freshwater pearls, a split-cane basked represented by organic stains at the bottom of the burial pit, several pieces of cut mica, and a clay dish that was placed on top of the man’s left eye. The second cluster contained four men, one adult for whom sex could not be determine, and a very young child. Only the child’s burial had grave goods, which included shell beads and a shell pendant.

The fact that these two clusters of burials were associated with the townhouse suggests that the individuals were important members of the community. Given that the majority of burials were men and the men had the most elaborate grave offerings, it is assumed that men generally filled the role of town leaders. Mortuary data from burials in the village area found that women had more elaborate burials then men, suggesting that women were probably clan leaders. Given that burials by the townhouse were associated with different construction stages of the mound, archaeologists think that the purposeful burning and rebuilding of the townhouse was related to the deaths and burials of important community leaders in the floors of the townhouses. An additional item of note during the later Qualla phase excavations was a pit filled with a large numbers of toad bones. People may have used the toads for medicinal or hallucinogenic purposes.


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.