Archaeological Perspective

Little is known of the prehistory of Wilson County. While limited archaeological work has been performed here, there does not exist an extensive survey of the kind required for a regional settlement system analysis. Nevertheless, recent data generated from this and other regions of the state (e.g. Coe 1964, Phelps 1976; Quinn and Gardner 1979; Rappleye and Gardner 1979; Dorwin and Gheesling 1977; Gardner 1978 can be used to post-date a general cultural sequence and chronology for the prehistoric occupation of Wilson County . Quinn and Gardner (1979) have constructed a tentative predictive model for the county:

Prehistoric archeological sites can be expected to date from the Early Archaic through the Woodland . The bulk of the sites will date from the Middle Archaic. Both base camps and transient camps will be found. Base camps should occur in association with major swampy areas such as are found on Toisnot Swamp and Little Contentnea Creek. Base camps are also more likely to be found near stream junctions. Sites will be invariably located on well drained elevated areas near streams of varying orders, although base camps will be in association with higher order streams. Most base camps can be expected to date from the late Early and the Middle Archaic. Late Archaic and Woodland period base camps and/or villages will be in association with major rivers such as the Tar and Neuse or for some minimal distance up tributary streams. Transient camps of all time periods will be in a number of locations adjacent to streams of varying order but invariably fairly close to these streams and on well drained lands.

The earliest inhabitants of the region were probably members of the Paleo-Indian or "Big-Game Hunting Tradition." Phelps assigns a date range of 15,000 to 8,000 B.C. to this tradition though the earliest date of human occupation in North Carolina is not yet known. However, it seems probable that Paleo-Indian populations were in the area by at least 10,000 B.C. This time frame coincides with the waning years of the Pleistocene glaciation, a period in which climactic and biotic conditions were much different than those of today. Phelps characterizes the period as having a cold climate, fir-spruce climax forests, and the presence of now-extinct mega fauna.

Although relatively little is known about the Paleo-Indian Period in the North Carolina coastal plain, it is generally believed that small bands subsisted by hunting the large Pleistocene mammals which roamed the area (Perkinson 1971, 1973, Gardner 1979). Most notable of these potential food resources were the mammoth and mastodon. While no direct evidence of the exploitation of these animals by man has yet been found in the east, incontrovertible evidence of these hunting patterns has been found in the Plains and Southwest regions of the United States (Willey 19636; Jennings 1974). This has led many archaeologists to assume a similar adaptation existed in the east, and that it is but a matter of time until the important discovery is made.

The Paleo-Indians of North Carolina likely supplemented their protein diet with plant foods collected in the immediate vicinity of their transient camps. In fact, plant foods were probably a more important dietary source than animal protein (Lee and Devore 1968).

Following the close of the Pleistocene, there was a readjustment of climate and biotic zones which led to the adaptation of the native population to the changed environmental conditions. This period, commonly called the Archaic, extends from the close of the Paleo-Indian Period to approximately 1,000 B.C. and may be roughly divided into three sub-periods. The Early Archaic (8000 to 5000 B.C.) marks a shift in subsistence base from the hunting of Pleistocene mammals to one adapted to the exploitation of presently existing plant and animal species. Emphasis upon the hunting of smaller animal forms is reflected in the Hardaway, Palmer, and Kirk project tile pints which characterize this period.

During the Middle Archaic (5000-2000 B.C.) population size began to increase appreciably. A more diversified tool inventory indicates that an expanded assortment of plant and animal foods were incorporated into the subsistence regime. Settlement patterns are not well understood but probably included limited activity sites associated with a more substantial base camp. Ground stone artifacts appear in this period, accompanied by Guilford , Halifax , Stanly and Morrow Mountain projectile point types.

Increasingly efficient use of forest resources ( Caldwell 1958) and those of other ecozones is documented in the variety of stone tools of the Late Archaic (2000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.). These tools include Savannah River and Gary type projectile points, grooved axes, and polished weights for the atlatl , or spear thrower. The atlatl, used in combination with the shaped handle or spear grip, increased momentum and accuracy of spear throwing through improved balance and increased mass. A variety of wood-procuring and wood-processing tools, such as axes and adzes, suggest that larger tracts of forest were being cleared to accommodate a growing population or perhaps a change in hunting practices.

The close of the Archaic and the beginning of the Early Woodland Period (1000 B.C. to 300 B.C.) is evidenced by utilization of a yet broader assortment of wild plants, foods, and the beginning of horticulture in the eastern United States . Settlement patterns change from frequently shifting base camps and limited-use sites to more stable villages and hamlets for which horticulture was increasingly important. Permanence of settlement and storage needs are reflected in development or adoption of ceramics. Pottery vessels of this and the following Middle Woodland Period may have fabric-cord-impressed or plain surfaces and are tempered with particles of crushed rock. Diagnostic lithics are not known, but may be smaller, crude versions of the Late Archaic stemmed projectile points and knives.

During the Middle Woodland (300 B.C. to A.D. 1000) dependence upon horticulture continues to increase, as reflected in a parallel increase in population and village size, and expanded diversity in artifact categories. Habitation sites are permanent and may become fortified late in the period. The ceramic technology is little changed with tempering material and surface treatment remaining basically the same as in the Early Woodland Period. Large, unnotched triangular points such as the Badin type were used in hunting or warfare and serve to demark the Middle Woodland Period.

The Late Woodland Period (A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1700) is characterized by the development of horticulture as the major subsistence strategy. Palisaded villages often housed populations of considerable size until the decline of the aboriginal population following contact with European-borne diseases and warfare. Diagnostic materials are small to medium sized triangular projectile points (Yadkin, Clements) and ceramics with temper of either grit or shell. With the advent of shell tempering, which appears fairly late, there is little change in surface treatment. It was during this late period that the British began their efforts to colonize the area.

While most data available for the prehistory of Wilson County indicate occupation primarily during the Archaic Period, it must be recognized that this reflects the limits of our knowledge concerning the area rather than the actual occupational history of the county. Some occupation during the Woodland Period is suggested by the presence of fabric-impressed shards from one site and the information reported by Phelps and Hilliard (1976) for another.