Archaeological collection at UNC is 8 million artifacts strong
The earliest records of North Carolina history come not from books, but from the ground on which we live. The things left behind by the state’s first inhabitants tell the tales of previous cultures.
And, for more than 30 years, UNC archaeologist Steve Davis has been a steward of those stories.
“A misperception of archaeology is that you just go out and discover what’s there. But, you don’t just find things as people left them. You have to factor in all the things that have happened since to alter the archaeological record,” he said.
Archaeologists find fragments, rarely anything whole. Through research and analysis they create the framework needed to piece together those shards, and in doing so, piece together a past that informs the future.
Celebrating its 75th year, UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology (RLA), of which Davis serves as associate director, is holding steady at 8 million of those kinds of artifacts, mostly from North Carolina.
Meticulously cataloged and stored in the basement of Hamilton Hall, the objects have been as much a part of Davis’ Carolina career as the students, the brick walks or the Old Well.
An archaeological education
Davis’ first interaction with the collections was as a student in the 1970s when he discovered a small archaeology museum in Person Hall, one of the early homes of the RLA. He didn’t yet know it, but as a young student interested in archaeology and Native Americans, he’d stumbled upon a collection that would be central to his career.
“The sign on the door didn’t say to stay out, so I went in, and it was wonderful! There were all these exhibit cases with artifacts,” he said. “It was the archive for understanding the first 10,000 years of North Carolina history.”
The RLA was responsible both for the research presented in those museum exhibits and for all the artifacts collected during that research.
A job in the labs would become, along with classes and excavations, part of Davis’ archaeological education. “That practical experience, much more than anything I learned in classes, had a strong impact on how my professional life would play out,” he said.
By his senior year, he was moving the RLA’s collections out of Person Hall so the Department of Music could move in. Since then, he’s known every home of the RLA’s millions of holdings – including the off-campus storage spaces and Wilson Library stacks – and was involved with renovating the basement of Hamilton Hall in 2007 to house the objects with room to grow.
It would be a stretch to say he knows every piece collected, but not a big one. Ever since he returned to Carolina after completing his Ph.D. in the early 1980s, Davis has been trying to wrap his arms around the massive collection so it can be of use to researchers, students and the public.
He created the collection’s first computerized catalogs using an old mainframe computer in Phillips Hall, gained access to a scanner that could convert typed catalog pages to text and pored through backlogs of photographic negatives that showed not only artifacts but also the work involved in excavating them.
“For 20 years, our work-study students were in the dark room making prints; later, they digitized them,” he said.
In the coming weeks, the entire RLA collection will be online. Davis has partnered with UNC Libraries to create an accessible, easy-to-use digital archive of the holdings for public use. Each catalog entry will have information about where it came from and where it was collected, along with images of the pieces.
“When I returned to Carolina in 1983, that artifact collection was already very important to me,” he said. “I came back with a strong responsibility to the collection for its research and educational value to the state and to our students.”
Vin Steponaitis, RLA director and chair of the Curriculum in Archaeology, called Davis the heart and soul of the RLA with his unsurpassed knowledge of the collections and as one of the leading archaeology scholars of the state. Because the collection is an important part of the state’s heritage, caring for it is a major responsibility for Carolina.
“We simply couldn’t operate without him. He has done more than anyone else to help preserve and maintain the North Carolina Archaeological Collection – the largest and most important archaeological archive in the state,” said Steponaitis. “He has helped countless UNC students, faculty and visiting scholars over the years.”
Illuminating the invisible
Since 2001, Davis, his colleague Brett Riggs and their students in UNC’s field school in North American archaeology have conducted research to better understand the emergence of the Catawba Indian nation in the 18th century and to study how they managed to survive in the face of illness and war.
“Contemporary writers all predicted their demise within a generation or two, but the nation still exists,” he said. “They were very important to the history of North Carolina as an early 18th-century refuge for many of the native groups that previously lived in the Piedmont and inner Coastal Plain of North Carolina.”
This summer, they excavated the site of a mid-18th century Catawba dwelling in York County, S.C., uncovering remains of the house and a sub-floor storage pit. They excavated fragments of pottery, iron objects, glass beads, pieces of a white-clay smoking pipe, broken bottles, eating utensils and more. Those artifacts came back to Carolina where the group will continue to work on telling the Catawba story.
Davis said that, like many archaeologists, he wants to bring to light a poorly known, and often invisible, history.
“With little written down about this period, we have to learn from the material evidence left behind,” he said. “There are many small communities across the state with a tradition of Native American ancestry, and the archaeology of how native people lived before and just after the Europeans arrived directly relates to those groups.”
A finite resource
The archaeological record is a finite resource, Davis said.
“Sites are rapidly disappearing as the region becomes more urbanized. For instance, when we began our research the highway through the Catawba area had very little traffic coming out of south Charlotte, few businesses and only occasional houses. Now it’s stoplight after stoplight and a nearly unbroken corridor of commercial and residential development,” he explained.
Though a few 18th-century Catawba sites have been excavated, many others are now destroyed, severely limiting what can be learned about that time period.
“We’re trying to discover what happened in the past, preserve that record where possible, and perform research in service of a segment of our population that has been devalued and underrepresented,” he said. “When the sites relevant to Native American history are gone, the potential for learning is gone, too.”
When Davis takes his students out to do archaeological fieldwork, he still experiences what he loved most about being a Carolina student: discovering something that hasn’t been seen for hundreds of years and connecting it to a remote past.
“At the end of the day the students can see what they’ve accomplished,” Davis said. “It’s not that they’ve just dug a square hole, it’s that they’ve systematically gathered information that will allow them and others to understand what happened in the distant past and link it to what’s happening now.
“That’s what I remember most from my first field experience as a student. I just couldn’t get enough of it!”