Past may be destroyed from development 7-07

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - 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 collection.

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.