The Research Laboratories of Archaeology (RLA) was founded in 1939 as a center for the study of Native American culture in North Carolina and nearby states.¹ Since then, its activities have grown to include research throughout the Americas. Given the great time-depth of Indian cultures in this hemisphere, the RLA’s research has been principally archaeological. Yet our activities have always had a strong interdisciplinary component, drawing on the methods of ethnobotany, ecology, history, geology, physical anthropology, geography, and other related fields.
Currently, the RLA’s mission has four facets:
- to expand knowledge of native peoples in the Americas, with particular emphasis on North Carolina and the South;
- to train graduate and undergraduate students in the methods of archaeology;
- to inform the public about Indian culture and archaeology; and
- to serve as a repository of archaeological collections.
Each of these facets is discussed more fully below.
Expanding Knowledge of Indian Cultures
The first facet, expanding knowledge of Indian cultures, is addressed through active programs of basic research and publication. The RLA is uniquely equipped to carry on long-term, problem-oriented archaeological research. Over the past 50 years, RLA staff and students have carried out excavations throughout North Carolina; this work underlies most of our current knowledge of the state’s pre-Colombian history, which stretches back some 12,000 years. The RLA has also supported, and will continue to support, archaeological research elsewhere in North America and Latin America. In order to help disseminate the knowledge gained through research, the RLA publishes a journal as well as monographs and technical reports. It is worth noting that the RLA is the only unit on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus whose primary emphasis is Native American studies.
The second function, student training, is achieved principally by involving both graduate and undergraduate students in RLA research. The RLA’s ongoing projects provide many learning opportunities for students, both in the field and in the laboratory. Indeed, because excavation requires large crews, it is practically impossible to carry out archaeological field work without student participation. Thus, our research and teaching functions are inseparable, in that each depends upon and invigorates the other. The RLA’s staff archaeologists also serve on numerous graduate and undergraduate committees.
The third function, public education, is served by a variety of exhibits, lectures, and other programs designed to reach beyond the walls of the University. For many people, “History” begins with the coming of the Europeans; the long history of the Indian peoples who preceded them is undervalued and misunderstood. Elementary and secondary-school curricula do little to remedy this situation. Hence, it is especially important that we bring the results of our work to the public, so that citizens of this state have a fuller, more accurate, and more balanced appreciation of their past.
Curating Archaeological Collections
The RLA’s fourth and final function, curating archaeological collections, is intimately tied to the preceding three. Sixty years of RLA excavations have produced one of the finest archaeological collections in the South, including over five million specimens under some 2,400 accession numbers. This collection is a unique resource for research, teaching, and exhibition. As such, it requires adequate facilities and care, not only to foster its use in the present, but also to preserve it for future generations.
¹ In its early days this unit was called the Laboratory of Archaeology and Anthropology. Later it became known as the Research Laboratories of Anthropology. The present name was adopted in 1997.