Archaeology, Protohistory, and Ceremony in the Pee Dee River Valley . . .

For more than a thousand years, Indians lived an agricultural life on the lands that became known as North Carolina. About the 11th century A.D., a new cultural tradition emerged in the Pee Dee River Valley. That new culture, called "Pee Dee" by archaeologists, was part of a widespread tradition known as "South Appalachian Mississippian." Throughout Georgia, South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and the southern North Carolina Piedmont, the new culture gave rise to complex societies. These inhabitants built earthen mounds for their spiritual and political leaders, engaged in widespread trade, supported craft specialists, and celebrated a new kind of religion.

The Ceremonial Center

Pee Dee culture represents a regional expression of South Appalachian Mississippian culture that interacted and evolved with other centers located throughout the Southeast. Indians of the Pee Dee culture established a political and ceremonial center on a low bluff overlooking the confluence of Town Creek and Little River. In addition to being a major habitation spot, the Town Creek site served as a place for discussion of matters important to the collective clans of the tribe. In this way, it was the setting for significant religious ceremonies and feasts, which often lasted several days. There many socially high-ranking members of the tribe lived, died, and were buried.

Town Creek Site

The "busk" was the most important ceremony of Indians living in the South Appalachian Mississippian sphere. During the busk, houses were cleaned and the temple and grounds were repaired. All fires were extinguished and all debts and grievances were resolved. From outlying villages people came and gathered at the ceremonial center for rituals of purification: ceremonial bathing, fasting, scratching the body with garfish teeth, and taking cathartic medicines. Everyone prepared to begin the new year with the eating of new corn at the conclusion of the busk, also known as "poskito." At the close of the busk visitors returned to their villages, carrying with them embers from the sacred fire with which to relight the hearths in their own homes. Sharing the fire symbolized unity among the Pee Dee, making them "people of one fire."

Uncovering the Town Creek Site

Excavations began at Town Creek in 1937 and continued for fifty years. Today excavations continue on a limited basis. The property became a state historic site in 1955. During the 1950s and 1960s key features of the site were reconstructed, including the mound, two temple structures, the burial house, and the surrounding stockade. Today the Town Creek site remains the only state historic site in North Carolina dedicated to American Indian heritage.

Mound Archaeology

Excavations revealed that the mound at Town Creek was constructed over an early rectangular structure known as an "earth lodge." The walls of the structure were formed by individual posts set in holes. Earth was then piled in an embankment around the walls and over the roof to create the lodge. Eventually this structure collapsed. Its remains and the surrounding area were covered, creating a low earthen mound that served as a platform upon which a temple was erected. This structure was later destroyed by fire. A second structure was built atop the new mound. An east-facing ramp provided access from the plaza to the top of the mound.

Public meetings and ceremonial activities took place in the large plaza or open area. Several structures, including some that served as burial or mortuary houses, were built around the edge of the plaza. The burial house was a special building containing the graves of people who probably belonged to the same clan. The mound, plaza, mortuary, and habitation areas were enclosed by a stockade made of closely set posts plastered with a mixture of clay and straw called daub. Archaeological investigations further revealed two guard towers, or gates—one each on the north and south edges of the stockade. Evidence of five periods of stockade building was found.

A visit to Town Creek Indian Mound offers a glimpse of pre-Columbian life in Piedmont North Carolina. The visitor center contains interpretive exhibits, as well as audiovisual programs that bring alive a rich cultural heritage from the buried past. Self-guided tours of the rebuilt structures and mound and other group activities are available.

Further Reading

The Archaeology of Town Creek
by Edmond A. Boudreaux
University of Alabama Press, 2007

Time before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina
by H. Trawick Ward and R. P. Stephen Davis Jr.,
University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Town Creek Indian Mound: A Native American Legacy
by Joffre Lanning Coe,
University of North Carolina Press, 1995.