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What the earth reveals about human history

Carefully digging, scraping and sifting. It's how archeologists seek clues into human history. Students at Appalachian State University learn these skills—and find cool artifacts—in a field archeology course each summer.

In an Ashe County cow pasture this past summer, students led by Dr. Tom Whyte examined the earth for traces left behind by early Native Americans. "Not much is known about this area," Whyte said of the New River valley. "We need to know what people were doing here and when."

The students found arrow points, scraping tools and bits of pottery. They also found burned rocks from ancient fireplaces.

On site, Whyte estimated some of the materials to be as much as 12,000 years old, others about 7,500. Most date back to between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago. This fall, the students are examining the artifacts in Whyte's archeological laboratory methods class in the Department of Anthropology to pinpoint their ages more exactly.

For senior Tootsie Jablonski, the fieldwork made her anthropology major "come alive."

"In class we study all the points and materials used, but when you actually come out here and take it out of the ground and look at it, it makes everything a lot more real and easier to remember," she said.

Who was here before us?

Whyte reminds his students that "it's not what you find; it's what you find out." That attitude guides his research interests in Southern Appalachian prehistory. Recently, his work has focused on how climate change through time has affected human settlement in the uplands.

"At altitudes above 2,500 feet, very subtle changes in average annual temperatures and rainfall had a measurable impact on human life and on when people could survive in the mountains and during what seasons," Whyte explained.

Based on the evidence he's seen so far, Whyte believes humans did not keep permanent villages in the mountains until after about 900 A.D. when a short-lived warming trend occurred across much of the world. Those permanent villages disappeared after 1300 A.D., he said, which coincided with what's known as the Little Ice Age. "That might have compromised their crop harvests and their lives to the extent they could not sustain permanent villages in the higher elevations. We do find evidence of humans after 1300 A.D. but not villages. It seems to be seasonal migrations to the mountains," Whyte said.

Hands in the dirt

Like many Appalachian faculty members, Whyte encourages undergraduate students to assist him with his research. They gain a taste of what's expected of professional researchers, connect classroom experience with real-world opportunities and get to present papers at conferences.

Much of the fun, though, comes in mastering fieldwork: how to observe soil changes, recover artifacts, map and measure the earth, and use the tools of archeology.

"What I really like about archeology is the physical aspect, actually getting out and digging stuff up," said senior Jeffrey Johnson. "I've also always been a history buff, so archeology is finding out history for myself."

Video transcript

This text transcript corresponds to the audio from the multimedia presentation located at the top of this page.

Tootsie Jablonski: This is archeological field school. Pretty much, we're just learning how to do archeology. It's a first-time experience for most of us. I love it. It's so much fun. It's everything that I had expected when I picked this major. You get to dig in the dirt all day. You get to go home feeling like you've done something.

Jeffrey Jones: We found a couple of points, a couple of scrapers, and a good amount of pottery. It's not a very significant site, but we're learning how to dig arbitrary levels and how to do test bits and, as Dr. Whyte says, "it's not what you find, it's what you find out."

Dr. Tom Whyte: This is a second terrace—an old flood plain overlooking the headwaters of the South Fork of the New River where it conflows with Dutch Creek in Ashe County. Not much is known about this area. We need to know what people were doing here in the past and when, what people's lives were like throughout pre-history in this area. This is a perfect setting for teaching—for teaching my students how to observe soil changes, to recover artifacts, to think about the human past, to sculpt the earth, to map and measure and use the tools of archeology. We're finding mostly prehistoric artifacts—artifacts that were left by native Americans before the whites came to the mountains here and we're finding artifacts from different time periods. We have found things that we think might be 12,000 years old, which would put the site into the late ice age.

TJ: This is a Morrow Mountain point. Once they made a stone tool, they would frequently re-sharpen it so they wouldn't have to find new lithic materials. Something that could have started out inches bigger would have constantly been chipped away and chipped away. It's made out of local quartz and would be about 7,500 years old. It was the most exciting thing of my life at that point. I ran over to Dr. Whyte and I washed it off. He told me what it was and I put on my Facebook status that I had found something cool. In class we study all of the different types of points and the different lithic materials used, but when you actually come out here and take it out of the ground and look at it... it makes everything more real and it makes it a lot easier to remember. We really do have one of the best Anthropology departments, period. We have some amazing professors that have really changed Southeastern archeology. To get to be with them, in their classes, to learn from them—it's a really great experience.

JJ: It's been really great working with Dr. Whyte. He's very knowledgeable. He's enthusiastic, helpful and friendly.

TJ: It's exciting to think that maybe one day I'll have a specialty and be able to do something like he's doing. What job could be better than getting to play in the dirt all day. Right?

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Chelsea Smith holds a yellow jasper knife dating to about 3,000 years ago.

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Dr. Tom Whyte teaches the students how to use a transit to record elevations.

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Student Terry Barbour holding a 9,500-year-old spear point.

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Jeremy Simonetti and Rob Sloan screen excavated dirt for artifacts.

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Page last updated: October 6, 2009