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Ancient NC Fishing Structures Discovered by Satellite

by: Tristan Dufresne,

RALEIGH — Beginning thousands of years ago, Native Americans built stone structures in rivers, concentrating fish for harvest. The land that was colonized into North Carolina has around 219 of these constructions, many in the Piedmont, according to findings released by the N.C. Office of State Archaeology (OSA).

State scientists and anthropologists have been using the satellite images collected by Google Earth and other survey services, in conjunction with previous research, to locate and identify seemingly odd arrangements of stones — often in shape of Vs and Ws — as man-made fishing tools predating European settlement of the area, from as early at 1000 B.C.E., the late Archaic Period in North America. 

These structures are believed to be fish weirs, or “structure[s] used in an aquatic setting such as a river, estuary, or coastline, that funnel or corral fish making them easier to catch and harvest,” a post on the department’s official Facebook account read.

“These kinds of devices can take many forms and their shape, size, and construction material will vary depending on where the weir is located and how the water flows in a particular place,” the post continued. The post included a link to an informational poster.

Assistant State Archaeologist David Cranford said, "In the past, we haven't had a concerted effort to study [fish weirs] systematically... One reason for that is while they're sometimes easily visible from shore, they've just been hard to see consistently.

"While we can identify them pretty readily as human made, we don't have a good way to date them... We know that some of them were made in the prehistoric period by American-Indian groups and then abandoned before being reclaimed in the colonial period" by American-Indians and some European immigrants.

The initial state-funded report included images from a Power Point presentation describing the scope and context of the study.

At least 750 weirs constructed from stone were tentatively identified around the East Coast “using Google Earth...and other sources,” Cranford wrote in the report. The findings may be subject to revision as experts determine if ancient “dams, sluiceways, and other cultural features,” have been mistaken for weirs.

“Little is known about their origins in part because the structures are difficult to access and document,” the study report says.

The report was first made available to academics at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Jackson, Miss., held November 14 through 17.

The larger project will attempt to catalogue all potential fish weirs. Archeologists aim not just to understand the devices themselves, but also to use the newly gathered data to survey surrounding locations for undiscovered Native American population centers.

"Part of the reason for doing this is to see if there is a way to do a better job of understanding [native and colonial life] based on the terrestrial archaeology that surrounds the weirs," Cranford said.

Another goal is to obtain official designation from the National Register of Historic Places for some of the weirs, which could assist in future research efforts.

Colonial-era and prehistoric fish weirs have been found up and down the east coast of the United States, with the highest number in North Carolina.

The report also indicates the Yadkin–Pee Dee River “hosts the largest number of fish weirs of any river examined.”

Although commercial fishing with weirs were outlawed across much of North America since the early 20th century, there is proof the practice continued in isolated pockets as late as the 1940s, according to the National Park Service.

Deputy Director of the Mainspring Conservation Trust Ben Laseter, which helps to identify and conserve land of cultural and natural significance in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, told the Sundial, "This kind of work could always shed light and help us define a focus area or project we might want to do.

"Although most of the sites are already known on a local level," he said, "it helps bring that information into a central database."

Historians of the area believe that the majority of the fish weirs were built by the Cherokee and their predecessors, like the so-called Mississippian Mound Builders and the Catawba Indian Nation.

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