The Dugout Canoes of Lake Phelps


1982 Somerset Place Survey

In 1982 a project to evaluate the archaelogical record of the lakeshore grounds of Somerset Place was carried out by Professor Peter Wood and an archaeological team from Duke University. During the project, samples of simple unglazed pottery were recovered. According to Wood, the sherds, which had been frequently found on the site prior to any archaeological investigation, were considered to be of prehistoric origins. He concluded, however, that they were, in fact, "definately Afro-American pottery" produced by the sizable plantation slave population at Somerset Place. He went on to proclaim that: "Archaeologists have been excavating these fragments for years without understanding them. They are wearing cultural blinders that prevent them from recognizing evidence that was right in front of them" [Wood, 1983]. Having examined the artifacts, Dr. David S. Phelps, of East Carolina University, argued that the ceramics were, indeed, of aboriginal origin, principally of the Late Woodland period [Phelps, p.c.]. Not until after the great fire of 1984 would further archaeological discoveries at the lake, or a resolution regarding the ceramics found at Somerset Place be made. The ceramics, were, in fact, of prehistoric origins.

1985 Discovery of Dugout Log Canoes

Following the fire in the summer of 1984, weather conditions in the Lake Phelps region were exceptionally dry. Near drought conditions continued well through the end of the year, and, combined with the already lowered water level of the lake from pumping, resulted in the continuation of abnorrnaly low water levels. As early as the fall of 1984, fishermen peering through the now crystal clear waters began to report observing artifacts resting on the bottom, including "partial and whole clay pots and stone objects." Some were collected and deposited at Pettigrew State Park. Collection efforts were sporadically conducted throughout the following year. In November 1985, the discovery of the first dugout canoe in Lake Phelps was made by park naturalist Michael Dunn and others. The search for and recovery of prehistoric ceramic fragments and lithics in the vicinity of Big Point by Dunn, amateur archaeologist Paris Trail, and others accelerated. [Phelps, 1; Shearin, p.c.; Trail, p.c.] (Page 14)

1985-1986 North Carolina Division of Archives and History Investigations

On November 18,1985, at the invitation of Lake Pettigrew State Park Superintendent Sidney Shearin, Richard Lawrence, Director of the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History (NCDAH), and Leslie Bright and Dr. William Sleight, also of UAU, visited Lake Phelps to examine the canoe. The canoe was relocated and found to be disarticulated in several pieces. Ceramics were also discovered and recovered. On November 20, UAU personnel, accompanied by Park Ranger Henry Stokes, recovered the canoe, which was then transported to the UAU Preservation Laboratory at Fort Fisher State Historic Park, Kure Beach, North Carolina. Sections of the canoe were removed for C-14 dating and speciation analysis, after which the vessel was submitted to an eight-month stabilization treatment of sugar and water. The Big Point site area was designated 0001PHL. [Lawrence, 1985; Bright, 1985]

On January 15, 1986, Lawrence, Bright, Sleight, and Steve Claggett, of the Archaeology Branch, NCDAH, Shearin, Dunn, and Stokes met to further evaluate the 0001PHL site area and to investigate a reported second canoe located by Dunn and Trail. The second canoe had been exposed as a result of swans digging holes in the lake bottom along the nearshore. When the site was first visited by Paris Trail, only a short section of the canoe was visible. He proceeded to clear the sediments from a section across the midships of the craft, probed along its length to establish its dimensions, and then dug down to the bow, which was buried under six-inches of silt. The vessel, like all but one found afterwards, was sitting in an upright position. Fragments of a ceramic pot were found approximately half inside and half outside of the canoe. It was apparent that the pot, which later proved to be of the type Deep Creek net impressed, of the Early Woodland period, had been dropped and hit the edge of the abandoned canoe. Trail later noted that he had located considerable quantities of pottery sherds and lithics in concentrations in the area around cypress stumps as far as twenty to thirty yards seaward of the present shoreline. [Lawrence, 1986; Trail, p.c.]

Investigation of the canoe and adjacent area (designated 0002PHL) by Lawrence, et al, revealed that it had probably been shaped by burning and charring, and was approximately 30 feet in length. Too large for immediate removal, its position was recorded, after which it was reburied to await recovery in the spring. Before departure, a five-foot-long section of canoe, believed to belong to 0001PHL, was discovered and stored in a small cut. Evaluation of many of the recovered ceramics by Dr. Phelps produced the observation that the collection contained Collington and Mount Pleasant series ceramics [Lawrence, 1986]. Radiocarbon dating of the two canoes by Beta Analytic Inc., produced a date for 0001LPH of 2720+/-70 B.P., and for 0002LPH of 2850 +/- 60 B.P. [Beta Analytic July 1, 1986]. Speciation of 0002LPH by the Forest Products Laboratory's Center for Wood Anatomy Research, USDA, revealed the wood to be bald cypress [Bright, April 30, 1986]. (Page 15)

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1986 East Carolina University Investigations

During the sununer of 1986, a concerted effort to carry out a survey of the entire north shoreline of the lake was conducted by a team led by Kaea Morris, a graduate student in underwater archaeology at East Carolina University. This work was facilitated by the employment of an aerial survey to pinpoint potential canoe locations in the abnormally shallow and clear waters. The survey resulted in the discovery of an additional 19 canoes, with C-14 dates ranging from as early as 4380 +/- 70 B.P. to as late as 550 +/- 60 B.P. Dredged materials from the canoes were submitted to flotation, and pollen and seed analysis. Samples of canoe wood were collected for speciation analysis. Ceramics and lithic artifacts were also located and recovered in the crystal-clear water [Beta Analytic, July 10, 1987; Preliminary Botanical Survey; Sid Shearin, p.c.]. Unfortunately, Morris's final reporton the investigation has yet to be completed. However, continuing investigation of artifact collections retrieved from the lake and from terrestrial sites by Dr. Phelps continue to enlarge the data base.

Sequence of Prehistoric Activity

From the aforementioned investigations, the sequence of prehistoric activity on Lake Phelps and its periodicity of occupation represent seven time periods ranging from the Paleo-Indian to the Late Woodland periods, and include the Palmer, Kirk, Morrow Mountain, Savannah River, Deep Creek, Mount Pleasant, and Colington phases. These time periods of occupation are consistent with the regional culture sequence [Phelps, 5; Phelps, p.c.].

To date, the archaeological remains discovered in Lake Phelps are concentrated in a single stretch from the west of Thirty Foot Canal to the western side of Big Point. The vast majority of canoes and artifacts have been found in the lake less than 50m from the shoreline in very shallow water (<-1m). Phelps [1989] has found no distinctive patterns of human occupation through time, rather the artifacts and canoes are randomly distributed. Carbon dating of the canoes tends to reinforce the random distribution hypothesis to some degree. Phelps suggests that the shoreline of the lake was not, in fact, occupied, but was seasonally (Page 19) visited by the natives who migrated annually across the Davenport Ridge to fish, hunt, and forage, probably during the late fall and winter [Phelps, p.c.].

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[Figure 15 - Collection Units from 31WH12]

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During the early Contact period, it was noted by settlers in the Raleigh colonizing effort that the natives would resort to fishing and hunting only "while their grownds be in sowing, and their come growing" [Quinn, I, 283]. Phelps has encapsulated the archaeological history of the lake thus:

The earliest human presence on the lake is evidenced by several small projectile points of the Palmer type dated to the Late Paleo-Indian period (11,000 - 10,000 B.P.), and were probably associated with hunter-gatherer camps adjacent to the shore during a period of colder climate, coniferous forests, and limited food resources. As the climate began to warm, the lake continued to host visiting hunter-gatherers. Although the Early Archaic (10,000 - 7000 B.P.) and Middle Archaic (7000 - 5000 B.P.) periods are poorly represented in the Lake Phelps collections examined by Dr. Phelps, two Kirk and Morrow Mountain spear points provide evidence of visitation during these times. [Phelps, 6] (Page 23)

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Carolina Algonkian Project, All Rights Reserved