Skip to main content

The Baum site (31CK9) is an example of an archaeological site that was in danger for many years as a result of coastal shoreline erosion. It is a site that helps us to understand how people living at a major Algonkian village treated members of their community in death. Baum was originally approximately 5 acres large and located north of Poplar Branch along the Currituck Sound. The primary occupation of the site was during the Middle Woodland (300 B.C. to A.D. 800) and Late Woodland (A.D. 800-1650) periods.

History of Excavations

The Baum site was first excavated in 1972, when it was recorded and tested in response to reports of human bone. Excavations showed that there were intact cultural features and uncovered part of the first Algonkian ossuary identified along the North Carolina coast. During August of 1973, this first ossuary was completely excavated and removed for study (Burial 1 Ossuary). After these data were analyzed, Dr. David Phelps decided to initiate a more comprehensive survey of parts of Currituck County, particularly on the eastern shore of the peninsula and looking at the relationship between settlement patterns and environment. Supported by a UNC Marine Science Council grant in 1974, the survey project located and recorded twenty sites in addition to the eight that were recovered by William Haag in Currituck County in 1955-1956.

In 1974, members of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission visited the site while it was being excavated in order to understand what coastal archaeological sites look like and to observe the natural erosion affecting sites in the Coastal Zone. When the site was visited by the Commission members, Baum was three meters from the edge of Currituck Sound. By 1980, wave action had come up to the edge of the excavations. In late May of 1980, the owner of the Baum site, Mr. Milford J. Baum, called Dr. Phelps to inform him that human skeletal remains were being exposed by the erosion. Unfortunately, resources were unavailable to excavate the site at that time; by June, storm erosion exposed more of the burial and a temporary bulkhead was built around the edge of the burial to protect it.

On June 18th, an emergency grant under the Coastal Area Management Act allowed excavations to salvage the ossuary, with Dr. Phelps of East Carolina University as the project director. Excavation of the ossuary occurred from July 12-19, 1980. Phelps and ECU came back in 1983, and the last salvage of the ossuary burials took place in 1987 by the Office of the State Archaeologist. While salvage excavations were occurring in 1983, a hurricane required the ECU crew to abandon the site. The hurricane blew the water out of Currituck Sound for several hundred feet, revealing that the Baum site may have been much larger than initially assume.

As Currituck County was becoming more developed, in 2005 CCR conducted test excavations to find out if the site was still present and intact. Backhoe trenches were used to remove overburden at the site, revealing that the midden under the plow zone was intact across most of the site. Few features were noted, however, and no ossuaries were found. In 2007, CCR completed intense excavations in advance of planned development. In those two years, another 5 to 10 feet of the site had eroded. This last survey indicated that significant features were no longer present and the preservation of animal and plant remains in the remnant shell midden could only provide limited additional information about the site.

Algonkian Ossuary Burials

Ossuaries are a type of burial that were typical of Algonkian cultures and their Iroquoian neighbors. They include incomplete bundles of bone that were stored for a period of time, as well as skeletons that were still articulated when deposited. The presence of numerous ossuaries at the Baum Site indicates that it was likely a capital village, or at least a village that was very important. Additionally, the location of the burials seems to indicate a cemetery area that was around the northern edge of the site.

While there were at least five ossuaries at the Baum site, only two were completely excavated and analyzed: Burial 1 and Burial 5. Burial 1 was revealed in 1972 and excavated in 1973. It contained the remains of 58 individuals, some in bundles and others represented by scattered bones. The remains of a cut panther muzzle, bone awls, and bone pins were also recovered.

Burial 5 contained approximately 30 individuals. Roughly one-quarter to one-third of this pit had been affected by erosion, but bone that was on the beach was able to be salvaged. This ossuary was particularly interesting because one articulated individual was placed in the pit while it was being refilled after the burial ceremony. This burial does not appear to be intrusive (dug after the entire feature was filled), which leads to two possible explanations. The family of the deceased may have arrived too late for the initial interment but before the pit was entirely closed; or the individual died during the ceremony and was included in the burial but without the usual flesh removal. The main burial pit of Burial 5 contained about 29 individuals in a circular pattern on the floor of the pit. Most of the artifacts recovered seem to be related to the midden that the pit was dug through and then refilled with. Burial goods are uncommon in ossuaries, but one small necklace made of 15 marginella shell beads and 1 disc-shaped copper bead was found near a group of remains from infants and children.

Overall, Burial 5 reveals that during the Mount Pleasant phase (300 B.C. to A.D. 800), the most common burial type consisted of individuals buried in flexed and semiflexed positions, although cremations are also found. At Baum, one cremation was uncovered on top of an earlier flexed burial, indicating that cremation existed at the same time as other burial practices. The person who was cremated was wrapped in a mat made of rush grasses, which was dated to roughly A.D. 295-425.


Lautzenheiser, Loretta, Susan E. Bamann, and Dennis C. Gosser
2011 • Now You See It; Now You Don’t. Coastal Erosion and Coastal Cottages: Twenty Years of Cultural Resource Management Studies. 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 30:13-1 – 13-13.

Phelps, David S.
1980 • Archaeological Salvage of an Ossuary at the Baum Site. Phelps Archaeology Laboratory, Department of Anthropology, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina. Copies available from the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, Raleigh.

Phelps, David S.
1983 • Archaeology of the North Carolina Coast and Coastal Plain: Problems and Hypotheses. In The Prehistory of North Carolina: An Archaeological Symposium, edited by Mark A. Mathis and Jeffrey J. Crow, pp. 1-52. North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh.

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.