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In the summer of 1936, the University of North Carolina made its first contribution to the study of North Carolina archaeology. University officials agreed to provide a truck to transport field equipment to the Keyauwee site, which was being excavated by the newly founded Archaeological Society of North Carolina. Although archaeological explorations had been conducted in the state in the 1880s by the Smithsonian Institution and again in 1933 by the Smithsonian with funds provided by the Civil Works Administration, the Keyauwee excavations represented the first in-state institutional effort to support scientific archaeology. University support continued in 1939 with the formal organization of the Laboratory of Anthropology. With funding provided primarily by the Works Progress Administration, a statewide program of archaeological research was developed, and by 1940, the Laboratory of Anthropology had a director, an assistant director, a secretary, and four assistants. The director also held a part-time faculty position and taught anthropology courses in the Department of Sociology. During these formative years, the small but growing archaeological collections of the Laboratory were frequently moved around the UNC campus, usually from one basement to another.

In 1942, all archaeological research at the University came to a temporary halt with the outbreak of World War II. It was not until six years later, in 1948, that the Laboratory of Anthropology was resurrected as the Research Laboratories of Anthropology (RLA).  Although the “Laboratory” became the “Laboratories” and “Research” was added to the name, this impressive sounding new organization was staffed by a single individual, its director Joffre Coe. University support, however, increased steadily over the years and by 1963, the staff had grown to include an assistant director, two full-time staff archaeologists, and a secretary. In addition, the newly established graduate program in anthropology attracted a number of part-time graduate student assistants. By this time, the collections also had found better, if not permanent, quarters in Person Hall.

In 1973, the laboratories and collections were moved once again; this time to Alumni Building. However, a temporary move back to Person Hall was necessary the following year, while Alumni Building underwent renovation. It was not until 1975 that the final move back to Alumni was completed. In 1975, too, additional storage space was acquired in a warehouse in Durham. Although the additional space was sorely needed, the move to Alumni Building meant the dismantling of an excellent visitors’ museum that had been set up in Person Hall. Facilities in Alumni prevented the re-establishment of the museum.

The basic personnel structure of the RLA (now Research Laboratories of Archaeology) has changed little since 1963. Today, in addition to the full-time staff, almost 20 research associates from other university departments also are affiliated with the Laboratories.  Also, the RLA provides office and laboratory space for six research associates affiliated with the Department of Anthropology and houses about two dozen anthropology graduate students specializing in archaeology or bioarchaeology.

Although the primary focus of the Research Laboratories has always been the archaeological study of Indian cultures in North Carolina and the southeastern United States, staff, students, and associates have, over the years, been involved in a wide range of anthropological endeavors, including: ethnographic and ethnohistoric studies; Mesoamerican, South American, and Old World prehistory; and ethnobotanical, paleo-osteological, and forensic research. The collections currently housed in the Research Labs abundantly reflect these eclectic interests over broad geographical areas.

The total collection includes more than five million specimens under 2,400 accession numbers. The majority of these are artifacts and ecofacts—ethnobotanical and faunal remains—from archaeological surveys and excavations carried out in North Carolina over the past 60 years. The most intensively studied areas have been the Appalachian region and the Piedmont. The Cherokee project conducted during the 1960s and the Siouan project during the 1980s and 1990s have generated a large body of data pertaining to cultural developments in these two very diverse regions of the state.

The following special collections also are worthy of note:

  • The Bullitt Collection, which contains Paleolithic tools from well-known sites in England and France, collected during the 1920s;
  • The Lowrance Ainu Collection, composed of archaeological and ethnographic materials gathered from Hokkaido, Japan just after World War II;
  • The Valentine Collection of archaeological materials from western North Carolina, collected during the 1880s; and
  • The Gravely Collection, which contains an extensive array of artifacts and excavation notes from southern Virginia.

In addition to the specimens, excavation records, and notes, the Research Laboratories curate over 24,000 color slides and over 30,000 black-and-white negatives and photographs documenting archaeological research in North Carolina and the greater Southeast. The slide inventory also includes study collections covering Mesoamerican, Southwestern, and Old World archaeology, as well as physical anthropology and human evolution.

For many years the Research Laboratories maintained North Carolina’s statewide system for recording and filing the locations of newly discovered archaeological sites. Although this function was transferred to the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology in the early 1980s, the Laboratories still maintain active site files with information on approximately 10,000 known archaeological sites in North Carolina and adjacent states.

From somewhat modest beginnings in 1939, the Research Laboratories of Archaeology have matured to become one of the most respected university-based archaeological research facilities in the Southeast. Today, research projects are being pursued in the Chesapeake Bay area, central Alabama, and throughout North Carolina. In addition to this active program of research, the staff strives to maintain the existing collections and to make them available and accessible to scholars and the interested public.

Adapted from “The Research Laboratories of Anthropology,” by H. Trawick Ward.  Southern Research Report 2.  Faculty Working Group in Southern Studies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1990.