GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Searching for the first North Carolinians has led Eastern Carolina University Professor Randy Daniel to a Greenville sewer plant.
In 17 days of work, Daniel and his crew of students have unearthed artifacts that indicate Native Americans lived along the banks of a Tar River tributary 3,000 and 9,000 years ago.
Daniel, an archaeology professor, is leading a five-week field course excavating a wooded area near Barber Creek.
Ceramic shards, stone tools, charcoal and bits of animal bone found at two levels in the sandy soil indicate hunter-gatherers visited the area in two prehistoric eras.
Daniel said he feels he is close to finding the earliest people in North Carolina.
"You've got to find the right haystack," he said. In the riverside site, he thinks he's found it.
"With luck, we'll find the right needle," he said.
It's rare to find an undisturbed site with artifacts dating back 9,000 years, said Matthew Jorgenson, an anthropology graduate assistant on the dig.
"We'll be coming back for years," he said.
The excavation site -- a naturally formed levee near the creek -- is full of well-preserved artifacts. Mud from periodic floods has covered and preserved broken ceramics and stone tools left behind by nomadic early Americans.
Beginning about a foot below the surface, the student workers have found evidence of inhabitants who walked the coastal plain 3,000 years ago. At 2 1/2 to 3 feet down, they've collected artifacts made by human hands 9,000 years ago.
"To find old sites, you have to find old dirt," Daniel said.
Finding an undisturbed site is key to understanding a past society, Daniel said.
Prehistoric artifacts have turned up in farmers' fields across North Carolina, but because the soil has been so frequently turned, other clues to their age and use have been lost, Daniel said.
He is able to put dates on the sites based on what's been found and where it's been found.
"Context is everything to an archaeologist," he said.
In about three weeks, the students have recovered thousands of ancient pieces, cataloguing the locations of their finds.
Taken together, they can provide information on the people who once lived along the creek and when they were there.
"No one artifact is a Rosetta Stone," Daniel said.
Daniel said he hopes to involve geologists and other experts to further verify the antiquity of the finds.
The group of about 15 students and graduate assistants continued their summer coursework last week, shoveling and sifting sandy soil from a set of square pits. Some students worked at a layer about two feet below ground level. Others dug in the bottom of pits nearly six feet below ground.
Undergraduate Jan Collazo used a pair of framed screens to catch and sift bits of pottery from scoops of 3,000-year-old dirt flung her way by Robert Person, an archaeology graduate student.
Collazo said bits of pottery hitting the mesh screen sound different from dirt and rocks.
"You learn to listen for it -- I love that sound," she said.
The site was discovered in 1977 when the Greenville Utilities Commission began planning to put in a sewer plant. Agencies and businesses are required by law to check for scientifically or historically important artifacts on their property before disturbing the land.
David Phelps, a retired ECU archaeology professor, discovered evidence that Native Americans had once lived along the waterfront there.
Daniel's excavation is the first in the area.
ECU's summer archaeology field-work class provided the work crew for the dig. The students are learning and helping conduct research, fulfilling the university's two key missions, Daniel said.
Most of what is known about prehistoric Native Americans in North Carolina has been gleaned from archaeological evidence in other parts of the Southeast, including excavations near the Savannah River in South Carolina.
The first North Carolinians hunted, fished and gathered food, moving from place to place. They lived in small family groups of up to a dozen people, Jorgenson said.