(Hi)Story Telling: Neighborhood Archaeology in the Southern Appalachians

The tradition of Appalachian story telling thrives in the mountains of western North Carolina. Given the region’s equally strong tradition of small family farms, many of the stories you hear recount local family histories and increasingly drastic changes in the surrounding landscape. In the small town of Canton, NC, I have partnered with the Canton Area Historical Museum to engage the local community’s pride in and knowledge of history through the Garden Creek Archaeological Project (GCAP), which is partially funded by the Arts of Citizenship Graduate Fellowship.

Involving archaeologists, local historians, and community members, GCAP is a collaborative effort that aims to learn more about the Garden Creek site, a 1500-year-old mound and village just outside of Canton. My dissertation research focuses on the social organization of the pre-Columbian community that lived there, and its social, economic, and ceremonial interactions with other communities across the Eastern Woodlands. The logistics of the project, however, have involved the more recent past, largely because the site is in the middle of Plott Farm neighborhood. Luckily, the present-day residents have both permitted  and encouraged our archaeological field work. Many of them view our efforts as attempts to learn more about the history of their land and the place they call home – and that matters to them. In turn, I am constantly learning things from folks in the neighborhood, from plow regimes and site locations to an appreciation for the sorts of relationships that can emerge from shared, if distant, local past.

Through Arts of Citizenship, GCAP has been able to involve the local community in two related phases of archaeological research. Currently, we are more than 10 weeks into the first phase: archaeological excavations of the settlement at Garden Creek. This undertaking required almost a year of making contacts, obtaining permissions, and solidifying logistical plans, during which Canton Area Historical Museum, and especially its caretaker Wayne Carson, were invaluable resources. Now, with the help of several undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Michigan and our local high school intern, Jordan Worley, we have excavated fifty square meters of archaeological deposits that include not only artifacts, but also intact hearths, roasting pits, and earthworks. Locals’ stories have been a major part of our success. One neighbor, for example, was able to tell us how deep we should expect to find archaeological features, based on his discovery of a fire pit and broken pottery during the construction of his garage. This anecdote is just one of many we hear from day to day that reveal to us how residents have been engaging with the history of their land long before the arrival of us archaeologists. We are now privileged to be able to enhance their experience with local history, by daily explaining our discoveries to site visitors, regularly updating our project blog, www.gardencreekarchaeology.wordpress.com, and hosting an upcoming public archaeology day on August 20.

The second phase of GCAP will get underway this fall. A museum studies undergraduate and I will work with the Canton Area Historical Museum, our community partner, to make an exhibit to showcase our discoveries about the ancient and ongoing history of the Garden Creek site. We envision that this exhibit will highlight three topics: the prehistory of the Garden Creek site and local area, the archaeological field and laboratory methodologies employed by GCAP, and the experiences of local residents with archaeological resources and with GCAP. The latter will include many of stories and photos we have been gathering this summer as we interact with neighbors on the site. By including their voices in the project and exhibit, we hope to highlight the importance of community collaboration in archaeological research and to encourage grassroots archaeological stewardship. Halfway through the project, we already sense that these goals are being realized, as locals’ stories become part of the ongoing historical narrative of this place.

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