By William Purcell
ASHEVILLE — Visitors from around the world flock to Biltmore Estate to see George Vanderbilt’s grand home and gardens.
However, about 1,800 years ago Native Americans from the Midwest, the Gulf Coast and southern Ohio traveled to the same grounds for very different reasons.
Researchers from Appalachian State University have discovered a trading village on the estate where a people called the Connestee exchanged mica for flint, copper, shells and pottery.
Appalachian archeologists have found artifacts dating as far as 6,000 years ago. With the discovery of the Connestee village, Biltmore’s more than 7,000-acre estate promises to be one of the richest archeological settings in the Southeast, according to Appalachian professor Larry Kimball.
“This a fantasy come true for an archeologist to have a find like this — that is of regional and national significance,” Kimball said. “The discoveries made so far are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The most significant find to date, is the discovery of this village that seems to have been at the center of two major trading routes.”
A team of Appalachian archeologists led by Scott Shumate spent five weeks assessing the significance of the most important prehistoric and historical archeological sites on the estate. Digging at a mound near Biltmore’s entrance, the researchers found bone, pottery shards, stones used for weapons and other evidence of a Connestee village.
The estate is archeologically significant in part because the area where the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers meet on the Biltmore Estate has been a focal point of human activity for many centuries. Home to nomadic groups of hunter/gathers early on, the land was later a significant community for the Cherokee. Some also believe that the 16th century explorer DeSoto took a route over estate land from Swannanoa Gap across the French Broad. It also is known that Gen. Griffith Rutherford crossed the river there during the Revolutionary War.
Two great trails for travel and trade intersect on the Biltmore property, one east/west route leading from the Piedmont into Western North Carolina and a second north/south route leading from Coastal South Carolina into the Ohio Valley. The Connestee built their village at this crossing.
“We know a lot about the Pisgah culture which came 400 years after the Connestee,” Kimball said. “We know the Pisgah were a full-blown agricultural society that used maize, but still hunted and gathered.
“They used bow and arrows and built palisades around their villages, and they had social inequity.”
But little is know about the Connestee.
Biltmore’s Connestee site can answer important historical questions about what these Native Americans ate and how they lived, and whether their society valued some members more than others.
“With a full archeological dig at this site, we can map out the entire village, where huts were built, where fortification was built, and perhaps find out what the mound was used for,” Kimball said. “Did the elders or tribe leaders live on the mound or was it only used for ceremonial purposes?”
Appalachian and the Biltmore Estate formed a public-private partnership to explore the archeological potential of the estate. Administrators from the estate and the university will meet during the winter months to plan future archeological expeditions. A plan will be developed to expand the Connestee dig and to continue a survey of other sites for future digs.
“We could spend six to 10 years studying the Connestee site,” Kimball said. “The estate has been minimally farmed and has been virtually untouched during the last century, so the archeological sites are clean and well-preserved.
“In five weeks, we only scratched the surface.”
In addition to pottery fragments, researchers have found deer bone, fish bone, and blades made from flint.
Appalachian graduate and researcher J.P. Preston found an “atlatl” weight at the Connestee site. “It was used to throw spears with more force,” he said. “It’s great to find artifacts, but the best finds are postholes.”
Locating postholes allow the researchers to map out the village including the size of the buildings and the number of people living there.
So far, it’s clear the Connestee village had dealings with a people from southern Ohio, but the details of those dealings remain unknown.
“We have found flint blades that were from southern Ohio,” Kimball said. “How did they get here? Was there a regular trade route or was there an influx of people moving here from Ohio?”
Kimball expects future digs to provide answers.
“The fun part is seeing how much like them we are,” Kimball said. “They didn’t live in Eden. They had droughts, disease, floods, war and leadership issues.
Kimball anticipates a core group of researchers digging at the site assisted by students from Appalachian and Warren Wilson College.
“This is a natural learning laboratory where students have a chance not only to put techniques into practice, but to contribute to a significant archeological endeavor,” Kimball said. “This is a unique public and private partnership between Appalachian and Biltmore.
“This project has the potential not only to be of major archeological significance, but the potential to train the next generation of Southern Appalachia archeologists.”