The Dugout Canoes of Lake Phelps



This report presents the results of a marine sub-surface radar survey of two discrete transects of the north nearshore of Lake Phelps, North Carolina. Field work was performed during September 1992, by Claude E. Petrone, of the National Geographic Society, and Donald G. Shomette, of Nautical Archaeological Associates, for the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, in concert with the Underwater Archaeology Unit of that agency, and assisted by Pettigrew State Park. The work was done in a cooperative research effort to test and refine the application of sub-surface radar exploration technology in a marine environment for the purpose of exploring for, locating, evaluating, and mapping submerged and buried cultural resources in Lake Phelps.

This report presents the results of field research undertaken to locate, evaluate, and map prehistoric resources resting beneath the bottoms of the lake, specifically log canoes, lithics, ceramics, and structures. Investigations were designed to develop a signature library of known sites, as well as hitherto unknown sites, and to refine marine sub-surface radar archaeological survey methodology.

During the survey, scores of anomalies were recorded, by probing and test excavation of discrete target areas, as well as by visual investigation. A library of identifiable sub-surface radar images was produced for reference in future efforts to locate submerged and buried prehistoric cultural resources in Lake Phelps and in like fresh water environments.

Organization of the Report

The physiographic setting of the project is addressed in Chapter II. Previous Investigations are discussed in Chapter III. A historic overview of the Lake Phelps region, and of the development of the Native American vessel types found in the lake are described in Chapter IV. Field methodology, and a description of the principal technology employed to conduct field operations is discussed in Chapter V. The results of the field work are presented in Chapter VI. Recommendations and guidelines for future study of the Lake Phelps resource base, and for further refinement of sub- surface marine radar exploration methodology are also included. Appendix A presents a library and brief descriptive data on the radar signatures recorded during the survey. Appendix B is a set of comprehensive site plans of Transects B and C. (Page 1)


Geological Setting

Lake Phelps is a unique, rain-fed depression, located on the Albermarle-Pamlico Peninsula of eastern North Carolina. This kidney-shaped pocosin is but one of several shallow, natural lakes known as "Carolina Bays," three of which, Lakes Phelps, Pungo, and Mattamuskeet, have hosted frequent and sometimes intensive prehistoric occupation. Lake Phelps is the second largest lake in the state in area, and is situated on the coastal plain less than forty miles west of Cape Hatteras. This fresh-water lake, which is seven miles in length and five miles in width, covers an area of nearly 25 square miles (or more precisely 16,600 acres), and is principally ensconced in Washington County, although its western fiinge abutts Tyrell County. The entire lake, however, and a substantial portion of its northern shoreline, falls within the jurisdiction and protection of Pettigrew State Park.

Geology and Geomorphology

The origins of the lake have been variously attributed to a meteorite strike, repeated peat burns, and development by the ever-evolving Pamlico terrace over the last 12,000 years. Recent geological studies, most notably by Heath (1975], Kaczorowski [1977], Ross, Crowsen, and Riggs [1979], Pratt [1985], and Holley [1989], have addressed the lake's creation and development more precisely. For the purpose of this report, the author has relied principally upon Heath and Holley, the latter of whom has analyzed and synthesized the bulk of previous works, partially as an effort to address the archaeological realities of the lake through the testing and assessment of its geological history.

Lake Phelps is directly underlain by Pleistocene marine and estuarine deposits. The uppermost marine unit likely correlates with the Flanner Beach Formation (189,000 B.P.). Estuarine muds and sands overlie the marine unit. The upper surface of the estuarine muds and sands is an unconformity upon which most of the lake sediments are deposited. The oldest terrestrial deposit above the unconformity that can be dated by the C-14 method is an organic stained sand (>38,000 B.P.). This sand unit is confined to the lake basin and may represent an early lake shore deposit.

Secondary rims recognized on aerial photographs are prominent on the east and southeast ends of the lake. These rims, which mark ancient lake shore positions, suggest that (Page 2) there has been a shoreline shift of the eastern and southeastern shores of as much as 1.25 miles to the west-northwest. Stratigraphy of rim sediments reveal that the shoreline shift was a product of sediment deposition. Several facies of rim sediments occur and are easily recognized by their grain size attributes. Rim facies divisions are products of changes in seasonal depositional energies and differences in depositional energy with water depth.

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Paleosoil development above the organic stained sand unit indicates that a major decline in lake level began about 25,000 B.P. The timing of the lake level decline corresponds with the last major regression of sea level when the regional climate would have been cooler and drier, and water tables would be much lower than at present. Holocene transgressions of sea level resulted in an elevated water table and has allowed the lake to rebound to its present state. This condition allowed for peat deposits to accumulate along the southern and western lake shores by about 6,000 B.P. Heath has suggested that:

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Currently, no natural streams either feed into or drain from the lake, and the only natural discharge appears to be overbank flooding along the low northwest shore, which ultimately reaches the Scuppernong River. It has been demonstrated by Heath that the primary source of water is from precipitation and overland flow, clear, and free of the tannic brown color that would signify ground water discharge from the surrounding peat deposits. This may be a modem circumstance produced by the existence of a perimeter canal which circles the lake from Big Point west and south to the southeast margin of the lake, which acts as an aquifer between lake and peat deposits.

Drainage of the hitherto internal land-locked drainage basin of the lake began in the late 18th century with the efforts of a consortium composed of Josiah Collins, Nathaniel Allen, and Samuel Dickinson to erect a canal to the Scuppemong River. This effort, together and with smaller drainage systems later erected in a lacework surrounding the take to permit farming of adjacent peat bogs, and mining of swamps and pocosins, has resulted in a modern lowering of the water table. Fine grained eolian sediment derived from reclaimed peat deposits to the south and west are presently being deposited in the lake basin. These organic-rich sediments are transported to the northeast and east by lake processes where they are being deposited near the shoreline. (Page 6)

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The water chemistry of Lake Phelps, a factor in the excellent preservation of organic archaeological materials found in its waters, has been addressed by Heath, Shearin, and Lawrence. Heath notes that Phelps is a fresh water lake with a chloride content of 9.5 mg/l. Shearin reports that the waterway is slightly acidic, with a pH of 6.0, while a study by Marie Carter of the Cape Fear Technical Institute noted pH at 4.65. Holley further suggests that the probable source of the lake pH is acid rain rather than tannic acid, a hypothesis reinforced by Heath's comparisons of tannic lakes in the area. Heath reports that most pocosins in the region have a pH range of 3.5 to 4.5, while precipitation in the area has a pH of 5.0 [Heath; Holley, 9; Lawrence, November 1985].

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The modern lowered water table causes seasonal lake level fluctuations in response to evaporation and precipitation. These lake level fluctuations have developed modern terrace and wave cut platforms along the northern, eastern, and southeastern shores of the lake. In 1984, the lake experienced a historic maximum low stand. A drop of over two and a half feet of water was recorded as a result of a major peat and forest bum of 95,000 acres abutting the south and east shores and the necessity of pumping out lake water to staunch the fire. Nearshore erosion, owing to the lowered wave base, exposed for the first time prehistoric dugout canoes in the water and artifacts from settlement and camp sites along the northern lake rim. Between 1985 and the September 1992 survey the water has begun to return to its historic average, a fact determined by recordation of water levels carried out by Pettigrew State Park since mid-1985, and during testing in the 1992 survey. (Page 11)

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Carolina Algonkian Project, All Rights Reserved