Internship at Nantahala National Forest

I headed to Murphy, North Carolina for an 8-week internship with the Forest service at the Nantahala National Forest immediately following field school in South Carolina. Needless to say I was a little nervous about this endeavor, but the sights on the drive through east Tennessee and into western North Carolina was enough to alleviate my apprehension. I have never been to this part of the southeast and seen the Appalachians, so, naturally I looked like a tourist the first week or so that I was here. I arrived early, so I was able to familiarize myself with the Murphy area before starting the internship. Luckily enough, I was able to rent a place at the Cherokee Hills Golf Club, which is only about a five minute drive to the Tusquitee ranger station.


View from Albert Mountain

The first week I spent a lot of time getting to know different areas of the forest. At a little over 530,000 acres, that’s a lot of forest. Nantahala is divided into 3 ranger districts: Tusquitee, Cheoah, and Nantahala. Andrew Triplett, my supervisor, is the zone archaeologist for the Nantahala and gave me a “tour” of the forest, but also introduced me to Forest Service personnel that I would be working with during the next 8 weeks. It was interesting to learn that most of the Forest Service personnel are involved with fire management. It’s kind of like the Army’s “infantry first, then specialization.” I knew going into the internship that there is a lot of archaeology and Cherokee history in the region. I also knew I would be working on a survey project for a future timber sale, and the background work started on Wednesday of my first week. However, due to some ARPA-related incidents that occurred on Forest service land prior to my arrival, the survey was not going to be at the forefront of my internship for now. I was given the locations of the timber units and was responsible for finding out if there had been any previous surveys in the vicinity of the proposed units and if there were any protected sites in or near our units. If so, these sites would need to be located and visited prior to our work to ensure they have not been disturbed. I was able to identify around 70 sites near our units. In addition to identifying sites, I also had to figure out what tracts of land within the forest our units would be within and look into the land acquisitions for those tracts. The last thing we want to do is destroy or impact potentially significant archaeological sites or existing structures if any are within our proposed project area. This work would continue intermittently over the next several weeks and will be included in the survey report.


Gathering background info

I also found out the first week that the survey project was not the only thing I would be working on this summer. I would also be working on an Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) violation. About 26 miles of the Trail of Tears runs through Nantahala National Forest. In addition to the 1,500-foot buffer that the Forest service manages around the trail, there is also a larger, congressionally mandated buffer for further protection. These two buffers, along with the Trail of Tears, make up the Trail of Tears corridor. The week before my arrival it was discovered that looting was occurring at a protected site within the Trail of Tears corridor. So, for now, the Forest Service’s attention will focus on this matter. We also went out the first week to assess the damage caused, map the area, and to get some photos. We also found several artifacts on the surface at the location which were mapped, photographed, and taken back to the work center.

Week two involved site monitoring. Andrew gave me a list of sites that needed to be monitored to make sure there was no damage or disturbance and sent me off to take photos, and for practice, to map the sites. Needless to say this was awesome! Several of the sites I have monitored are well off the beaten path and quite a hike to get to. This allowed for some great hiking and scenery. Others were well-known sites such as the Wilson Lick ranger station that was used back during the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) days, or historic fire towers such as Wayah Bald, Wesser Bald, and Panther Top Towers. The Forest Service also gets reports from landowners and locals regarding landmarks and features that the Forest Service might not have known existed. I was sent out one day with a rough map and a GPS unit to find an area where there were reportedly civil war ambush pits that Andrew was notified about to map/photo them. Earlier in the week I was sent to find the grave of a local woman who had perished in 1852 when her lean-to shelter fell in. Without too much trouble I was able to find and record both. Andrew also showed me an area where there was a possible mica quarry as well as some other areas that offered fantastic photos.

By week 3, the ARPA case had slowed down a little bit and we once again focused our attention on the timber sale survey. The week mostly consisted of going out and locating the protected sites I had found near our survey areas and noting any damage or disturbances. I had already consulted the forest quadrangle maps to find out how to get into these locations. This task definitely aided me in familiarizing myself with the forest. Thankfully the sites were found (though some took longer to find than others) and they were not disturbed. This was also one of the more tedious tasks because not all of the sites are located on the map I was referencing from previous surveys in the area. There was quite a bit of digging, so to speak, through files of previous survey projects. I was able to finish most of the background info for the timber survey and began organizing my notes and the info I had obtained for the survey report.

Week 4 once again brought the survey work to a halt. Andrew had received news a few weeks back that there were now five additional areas within the Trail of Tears corridor that had potentially been damaged. In fact, they had potentially been plowed. Whether or not they were related to the previous incidents would have to be determined, but in either case we went out to asses the areas. We found that all five had been extensively damaged by plowing. Of these five areas, three had been previously surveyed. Two of them were found to contain sites during the survey, while one did not. We identified artifacts exposed on the surface in only one of these areas. It was the area that had not been previously surveyed. The two remaining areas had not been previously surveyed either. However, there were artifacts exposed on the surface in these two areas. Below are photos of the areas we are dealing with and some of the artifacts recovered. Interestingly enough, most of the prehistoric lithic artifacts we are recovering are made of quartz. There is no shortage of quartz material in/near the numerous waterways throughout the forest. Several Morrow Mountain and Guilford projectile points have been recovered on the surface at these sites we’ve been working at as well as some pitted stones recovered at one of the larger sites. We have recovered only small flakes of Knox chert and rhyolite material. As mentioned earlier, mica is also readily available in many areas we have visited as well and in the next few weeks Andrew is going to take me to an area where there is a steatite quarry. While we have recovered a few pieces of historic ceramics, we have not recovered any prehistoric pottery.



This week we continued working on getting damage assessments completed so we could present them to the forest archaeologist, Rodney Snedeker, and the forest supervisor, Allen Nicholas in Asheville, NC. We went out and dug a few slit trenches to get a profile of the disturbances. We also measured the sites and collected/recorded/photographed any exposed surface artifacts to have Rodney take a look at. We determined that 600 yds3 of soil disturbance was done between these three sites. The estimated cost of mitigating the damage is astronomical. Rodney determined that the two previously unknown sites are Early/Middle Archaic sites while the third was already a protected Middle Archaic site. I thoroughly enjoyed the meeting with the forest archaeologist. We hashed out a research plan going forward for the disturbed areas, but those projects may or may not be started before I leave. The icing on the cake for the visit to Ashville was this beauty…


I have about 3 ½ weeks left here at Nantahala. The internship has so far been an awesome experience. While it is unfortunate, it has been good to see how the Forest service, but more specifically the archaeologist, handles an ARPA case and how the information flows between the various agencies involved. It has also taught me that digging, while probably the more visible aspect of archaeology, is only one part of the job. It wasn’t until about a month into the internship that I put a shovel in the ground. Also, I have been able to work on skills such as mapping sites, site monitoring, recording, etc. The weekends are great and I have been doing A LOT of fishing in the many rivers and tributaries that wind through the forest as well as hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail. I have been fortunate to see a lot of places on the forest that the general public don’t have the chance to see that offer some pretty stunning scenery. To me, nothing beats having early morning breakfast down at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where the temperature is so cool that my morning coffee can be seen steaming and there is actually a chill in the air. There is still a lot of work to be done as far as the damaged areas go and hopefully we’ll be able to get the survey going before I leave on August 4th.

-James Strawn

Archaeology MA student


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