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Past may be destroyed: Development threatens hidden artifacts

Mark Willis and several of his friends have spent decades
combing the fields, stream banks and woods north of Greensboro
in search of lost treasure.

Their quest, which borders on an obsession, doesn’t involve
glittering gems, tidbits of precious metal or anything else of much financial
value. In fact, the average person would be hard-pressed to distinguish some of
their more significant finds from the average field stone.

But the Native American artifacts they have collected tell
rich stories of vanished cultures spanning 10,000 years on a Piedmont landscape
that has undergone massive changes, perhaps none more dramatic than those of
the past five or 10 years.

“This is just some of what we’ve got,” Willis
said, gesturing toward a huge display including arrowheads, cookware and pieces
of what could be a child’s burial urn. “We have thousands of things. We
can’t bring it all out, it’s so much.”

But their hobby is threatened by all the development in the
area, including a proposal to put a 775-home, golf-course community amid one of
their prime artifact-hunting areas.

Willis has contacted Guilford County and state officials to
suggest that before such a massive undertaking, the area be carefully surveyed
to make sure nothing of historical merit is destroyed. He is particularly
concerned about a Native American burial ground said to be on land slated for
the golf course, a tract he hasn’t checked out because it is on private land he
didn’t have permission to explore.

The problem is that modern construction equipment tears up
the terrain in ways that the farm implements of yesteryear never did, said
James Swaney, one of Willis’ partners in amateur archaeology.

“They’re just able to go deeper so they break things
apart like crazy,” Swaney said.

He points to some quartz items, including a scraper used for
such tasks as cleaning fur.

“All these came from right over there, where you hear
the bulldozers right now,” he says, nodding across the street from a house
near Lake Townsend where the men gathered to display some of their huge

The bulldozers are clearing land for home construction. It’s
a story repeated daily in this part of Guilford County, where the Haw River
sputters to life in such creeks as the small but pristine Mears Fork.

Along with fellow artifact hunter Roger Martin, Willis and
Swaney believe the area near Haw River State Park should be examined carefully
by professional archaeologists before development proceeds, particularly the
Patriot’s Landing golf course community next to the park.

State officials had hoped to buy that land for the park. But
several owners instead decided to sell 691 acres to a Florida developer,
Bluegreen Communities, which has submitted plans for the 18-hole golf course
with housing interspersed among the links.

State park officials are negotiating with Bluegreen to buy
as much of the property as they can to preserve in the park.

Efforts to reach Bluegreen for comment about Patriot’s
Landing have been unsuccessful.

The state archaeology office in Raleigh has been contacted
by other state officials to see whether a survey of the land proposed for
Patriot’s Landing is warranted.

Finding a site of archaeological importance could slow or
alter development plans, but such finds seldom derail them completely, said
state archaeologist Stephen Claggett. The office has limited authority to
affect what happens on private land; it tries to find and preserve important
artifacts as the project moves forward, he said.

“It requires evidence,” Claggett said. “We’ll
often get reports from people who say, ‘We heard there was a cemetery or an
Indian burial ground.’ Sometimes it just doesn’t pan out.”

But when confirmed, a burial ground must either be avoided
by a developer or relocated, he said.

Archaeologists get drawn into emotional controversies
involving development, but they must focus on what a site can contribute to the
archaeological record in making suggestions about its future, said Paul
Thacker, who teaches archaeology at Wake Forest University.

Willis, Martin and Swaney hope that someday the new state
park will display part of their collection to give visitors a sense of the
people who once made their home in what, thousands of years later, would become
Guilford County.

The time span represented by their collection is its most
important feature, Willis said. The materials go back to the Clovis era shortly
after the last ice age and include items from other major archaeological
periods up to 300 years ago, he said.

They show a long series of different populations, all with
differing skills and interests, all drawn to the area by its clean water,
fertile soil and abundant game, Willis said.

But each eventually was thrust aside by changing natural
conditions or by new cultures that made the old lifestyle obsolete.

Sometimes, looking at his artifacts and thinking about the
rapidly changing landscape where he found them, Willis must know exactly how
that felt.

Information from: News & Record,

– Associated Press

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