The WNC Mounds and Towns project

The Nikwasi Mound as shown in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1880.

Western North Carolina is home to a long and rich history of human settlement, including Native American populations that thrived in the area before settlement by European and American farmers. Driving along Highway 441 from Dillard, Georgia, to Dillsboro, North Carolina, you follow the same route through the Cherokee Middle Towns that the English naturalist William Bartram took on the eve of the American Revolution. In Cherokee, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the descendants of those Cherokee who were able to avoid or escape removal in 1838, have developed a thriving tourist economy while also working to preserve and revitalize their traditional cultural practices.

However there are still many unanswered questions about the history and archaeology of Western North Carolina. Some of the most interesting and important questions relate to a feature of the prehistoric cultural landscape that people pass every time they drive down east Main Street in Franklin or Highway 19: Native American mounds.

These monumental structures, shaped into domes or pyramids, were built by native societies in Western North Carolina from approximately A.D. 200 to 1600. Beginning in the 17th century, Cherokee people built townhouses – large public buildings – instead of mounds in the center of their towns. In some cases they built townhouses on top of mounds built during earlier centuries (this was the case at the Nikwasi mound in downtown Franklin). When a Cherokee townhouse became old and dilapidated, it was dismantled, and a new townhouse was erected on the site of the former building. Over time, this rebuilding process created a low mound not unlike the mounds from earlier centuries.

Archaeologists have a general understanding of how and why these mounds were constructed, but because many of them were destroyed by looting, plowing, and other destructive processes, we do not know how many of them once stood in Western North Carolina. Imagine how hard it would be to make an accurate political map of modern-day Western North Carolina and plot out the flows of people, goods, and services without knowing the location of the major cities. Without knowing where these mounds were located, understanding the nature of Native American social, cultural, and economic interactions will be very difficult.

In the summer of 2011, Dr. Ben Steere and others working with the Coweeta LTER began a collaborative archaeological research project with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to address these questions by locating these “missing” mound sites. The project is also supported by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the Duke Energy Foundation.

As of 2011, only 16 mound sites had been officially recorded by the LTER collaboration [correction for online edition] in the 11 westernmost counties of North Carolina. This number seemed very low, considering that the anthropologist James Mooney and the archaeologists John Emmert and Cyrus Thomas from the Smithsonian Institution recorded more than 40 mounds in the same area in the late nineteenth century. Likewise, only a fraction of the dozens of historically recorded eighteenth-century Cherokee town sites have been positively identified with archaeological evidence.

During the first phase of the project Steere and his colleagues identified 50 confirmed and possible mound sites. These included the 16 that had already been confirmed through archaeological testing, nine that were completely excavated during the late 19th century but whose exact whereabouts had been lost, and 25 possible mounds known through documentary sources, new archaeological surveys, and local oral histories. We inferred possible locations for these mounds using the available evidence. At sites that were well preserved, and where landowners worked with us to help us complete archaeological surveys, we dug small shovel test pits in the village area surrounding mounds. We did this to find artifacts that could be used to assign dates of occupation to the archaeological sites, and to get a better idea of what sorts of activities took place around the mounds.

Mound sites are not just important to those of us who care about history and archaeology in Western North Carolina. They are also sacred places from a traditional Cherokee perspective. Through this cooperative project with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and other concerned citizens and organizations in western North Carolina, the Coweeta LTER is working to improve our understanding of the rich history of the area, and contributing to the preservation of sacred Cherokee places.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B6. Sept 7, 2012.