The Southern Piedmont region is archaeologically significant within North Carolina. During Late Woodland times, the cultures located between the Uwharrie Mountains and the border between North and South Carolina did not participate in the Piedmont Village Tradition. They were influenced by a very different cultural tradition called South Appalachian Mississippian.
Between A.D. 1000 and 1400, Mississippian-influenced societies developed from the coast of Georgia to the mountains of North Carolina. Known archaeologically as Etowah, Wilbanks, Savannah, Pisgah, Irene, and Pee Dee, these politically complex cultures built mounds for their elite, participated in an elaborate ceremonialism, and sometimes ruled over large territories.
In the southern North Carolina Piedmont, the clearest expression of South Appalachian Mississippian tradition is the Pee Dee culture. And the most obvious archaeological site relating to the Pee Dee culture is the Town Creek site, located on the Little River in Montgomery County.
The southern North Carolina Piedmont is also unique in the history of North Carolina archaeology. It is here that the first formal excavations were organized and launched by North Carolina archaeologists. Excavations in the southern Piedmont began an unbroken tradition of research that gradually spread across the state and is manifest today in a multitude of public and private programs.
The people who lived at the Town Creek site during its heyday have been referred to as the "Pee Dee Indians" and their distinctive lifestyle, the "Pee Dee Culture." The site itself is located on the west bank of the Little River near its confluence with Town Fork Creek, in Montgomery County. A few miles downstream the Little River flows into the Pee Dee [River], which becomes the Great Pee Dee as it cuts through northeastern South Carolina to empty into the Atlantic Ocean.
Excavations revealed that the mound at Town Creek was constructed over an early rectangular structure that has been described as an earth lodge. Individual posts set in holes formed the structure's walls. Earth was then piled in an embankment around the walls and over the roof to create the "earth 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 or town house was erected. That structure ultimately burned. Its charred remains were also covered by a thick layer of soil, which served to enlarge and heighten the original mound. A second structure, identical to the first, was built atop the new mound.
The mound at Town Creek faced a large plaza or public area where public meetings and ceremonial activities took place. Several structures, including some that served as burial or mortuary houses, were constructed around the edge of the plaza. The mound, plaza, and habitation zone were enclosed by a stockade made of closely set posts. Evidence of five episodes of stockade building has been found. All but the latest stockade stood before the mound was constructed.
Although not visible like the mound, equally impressive is the large number of human burials at Town Creek. A total of 563 burials are thought to be associated with the Pee Dee culture. Several of these graves are clustered in mortuary areas. Most individuals were interred in simple pits with their bodies arranged in a loosely flexed position. A few were buried with their bodies fully extended, and a small number of individuals appear to have been reburied as bone bundles. The bodies of several infants and small children were tightly wrapped and placed in large pottery vesselscalled burial urnsthat were then placed in the ground. A few of the Pee Dee burials were richly adorned with a variety of exotic artifacts made from copper imported from the Great Lakes area and shells from the coast. Copper artifacts include copper-covered wooden ear spools and rattles, pendants, sheets of copper, and a copper ax. Beads, gorgets, and pins were fashioned from conch shell.
The Pee Dee culture of Town Creek represented quite a departure from the Piedmont Village Tradition to the north and that previously characterized the southern Piedmont. It was so different, in fact, that in 1952, Pee Dee culture was described as being "one of the best archaeological records of the movement of a people in the Southeast." The people who built Town Creek were seen as invaders from the south who traveled up the Pee Dee River Valley and introduced an entirely new and alien way of life on the southern North Carolina Piedmont. At the time, it was thought that this new culture arrived around A.D. 1550 and had disappeared by 1650, "like a beam of light flashing across a dark sky."
Today, archaeologists know that Pee Dee culture is considerably earlier than originally thought, and that invaders did not introduce it from the south by moving en masse into the North Carolina Piedmont. Pee Dee is better viewed as a regional center of South Appalachian Mississippian that interacted and evolved with other regional centers scattered from the Coastal Plain of Georgia and South Carolina to the western North Carolina mountains.
Archaeologists now believe that the fourteenth century saw the decline of many South Appalachian Mississippian centers like Irene and Town Creek. As the temple mounds were abandoned, burial practices changed to reflect a more egalitarian society. The shift from government by an elite to government by public consensus also is seen in the increased use of large public council houses, rather than priestly temples atop mounds. In the Savannah River Valley this decline in chiefly power is viewed, at least in part, as a consequence of prolonged drought conditions which caused a significant decline in agricultural production. The large number of burials at Town Creek may mean that the Pee Dee Indians faced a similar fate.
The Town Creek Site, like a powerful magnet, has drawn the attention of archaeologists for over 60 years. With only mild hyperbole, it could be said that the mound on the banks of the Little River has been the center of the archaeological universe in the southern North Carolina Piedmont. However, since the 1980s, the focus of archaeological excavations has shifted away from Town Creek to outlying Pee Dee villages without mounds.
Excerpted from Time before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina, by H. Trawick Ward and R. P. Stephen Davis Jr., University of North Carolina Press, 1999.