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Students Dust Off the Past at Valle Crucis Historical Site

By Jane Nicholson

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BOONE – A rock outcropping located along the Watauga River in Valle Crucis has been a stopping-off point for people for more than 9,000 years.

It has provided shelter from the weather, a camp for hunters, and a location for at least one burial.

Students in a field archaeology school conducted every other summer at Appalachian State University have painstakingly uncovered evidence of the area’s early visitors, digging and brushing away layers of dirt. Using trowels, dustpans, brushes and whisk brooms, they have uncovered arrowheads, pot shards, spear points and other items that were thrown away when they no longer were used.

The debris tells archaeologists like Professor Tom Whyte a lot about the prehistory of the area. Whyte is passing his skills on to his students in the field school.

“Humans were in the New River and Valle Crucis areas at least 10,000 to 12,000 years ago as indicated by distinctive artifacts that individuals have found in those areas,” Whyte said. Whyte teaches in Appalachian’s Department of Anthropology. In late prehistory, the area mostly likely was used by Catawbans or other Siouan-speaking groups.

“Often, these places provided shelter,” Whyte said. “In the more commodious rock shelters, you’ll find evidence of human habitation, usually temporary habitation for people who were camping out while they were in transit. There’s a lot of evidence of that here, dating from 9,000 years ago on into historic times.”

The site was first excavated in the late 1960s by a biology professor from Appalachian. He unearthed the skeleton of a young woman who died between A.D. 1300 and 1500, most likely in childbirth.

In 1975, Appalachian archaeologist Burt Purrington wrote that the site had been “completely destroyed by local collectors” and others, but Whyte and his students are finding that’s not the case.

” There is still a lot to this site,” Whyte said. “The 1968 excavation only scratched the surface. It’s a deeply stratified site, probably two meters deep.”

During the most recent dig, students unearthed pottery, animal bones, arrow points, and stone artifacts indicating the site was used from 9,000 to 500 years ago.

” A lot of the best part of the site in terms of preserved context is on the slope, where the visitors to the shelter were throwing out their garbage, cleaning out their hearths, throwing things down the hill,” Whyte said. “It’s such a neat layer cake of time.”

A spear point made from vein quartz dates to around 7,500 years ago. Whyte calls it a “great time marker.” A piece of pottery that was recovered from the site bears decorative marks created when a wooden paddle was pressed in the moist clay. It is typical of Burke series pottery, common throughout the Catawba and Yadkin River valleys, and representative of Catawba Indian pottery.

An excavation conducted in 2003 yielded pottery, small triangular arrow points, burned rocks, and carbonized plant and animal remains, and human remains that were reported to the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. Burnt food residue on a pottery shard recovered during that dig was dated to 870 A.D.

Property owner Charles Church is very interested and supportive of archeology, and has allowed Whyte to use the site for the field school to chronicle the changes that have occurred over time. “He cares about archaeology and preserving knowledge of the past,” Whyte said.

“It’s a really important site and there are not too many like it around here that are this well preserved,” Whyte said. “It’s so rich, I think we could spend 10 years exploring the site.”

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Picture Caption: Appalachian State University students Ashleigh Rockett, top, Aleen Volkan, left, and Zane Rothrock spent five weeks uncovering artifacts from a historic rock shelter site in Valle Crucis. The site provided shelter and was used by Catawba Indian hunters some 9,000 years ago. The students, all juniors, were enrolled in an archeology field school offered every other summer at Appalachian. Rockett is from Gastonia, Volkan is from Fort Meyers, Fla., and Rothrock is from Reidsville. (Appalachian photos by University Photographer Mike Rominger)