The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

Excavating Occaneechi Town: Archaeology of an Eighteenth-Century Indian Village in North Carolina. R. P. Stephen Davis Jr., Patrick C. Livingood, H. Trawick Ward, and Vincas P. Steponaitis, eds. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. 1998. CD-ROM. PC, Windows 3.1 or Windows 95. [For more information and CD-ROM excerpts, go to:]  

Close-up view of 1733 map of North Carolina showing Occaneechi Island on Roanoke River.
Close-up view of 1733 map of North Carolina
showing Occaneechi Island on Roanoke River.
From Excavating Occaneechi Town.
Excavating Occaneechi Town is a comprehensive archaeological site report on CD-ROM. I first saw one of no fewer than six Beta versions demonstrated at the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology. It was clear then that the authors were on to something. The published version lives up to the promise I first saw in the 1995 pre-release in Minneapolis.

Occaneechi Town was a seventeenth-century palisaded village with about a dozen house structures and associated features. Its site is located on an island in the Roanoke River northwest of modern Durham, North Carolina. The Occaneechis were Siouan-speaking people, living in the Carolina Piedmont amongst a variety of other Native American societies. The site of the town, called the "Fredricks" site by archaeologists, was discovered in 1983. Major excavations took place from 1984 through 1986.

The main menu offers ten options, including a twenty-five-page primer on the basics of archaeological excavation and a table of contents. There is a basic introduction to the CD-ROM format, including an annotated version of the table of contents. One can jump easily via hyperlinks from highlighted keywords in this section to specific subjects elsewhere. This is valuable whether one wishes to look at a specific artifact, a specific feature, or a specific published source in the bibliography. Another section provides cultural background on the original inhabitants of Occaneechi Town, a history of archaeological discovery and research, and other useful contextual information.

Aerial view of Occaneechi dig.
Aerial view of Occaneechi dig.
From Excavating Occaneechi Town
The work has four authors and another eleven named contributors. Its production was sponsored by The Research Laboratories of Archaeology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published by The University of North Carolina Press. Producing it was an expensive and time-consuming process. It was one of those complex corporate academic efforts that defy clear assessment of total cost. While CD-ROM publications like this one are and clearly should be important features of twenty-first-century archaeology, they are not likely to be produced by lone scholars toiling away on their laptops. The funding and teamwork required to produce a CD-ROM as good as this one will not allow for it. Just as the theoretical and technological sophistication of modern archaeology has made amateur archaeology obsolete, so too is the new computer-based information age making traditional scholarship obsolete.

One is struck by the many ways in which this CD-ROM publication is better than a traditional printed monograph on the same subject would have been. There are over 4,000 full-color photos and maps. There are data on over 100,000 artifacts. All of this can be installed in either a complete version for professionals or in an abridged version for instructional or public use. The main difference is that human burials are omitted from the abridged version. Of course a great advantage of publication in CD-ROM format is that the path one takes through the many dimensions of an archaeological excavation is determined by the user, rather than by the authors. Even if one sets aside the advantages of interactivity and the version options, the cost of publishing something equivalent in book format would be prohibitively high.

One can browse through the excavations, zooming in on over 160 excavation units, most of them 10 x 10 foot squares. One can also zoom in on either structures or features, browse through linked photos and maps, or jump to artifact lists. Artifacts are dealt with in separate sections on pottery, stone tools, shell ornaments, and European trade artifacts. There are over 17,000 in the last category, arranged in about a dozen categories. Very helpful color images are provided for the most informative specimens, and these can be easily sent to a printer. Faunal remains are analyzed and there are some comparative data from the Wall site, which was once suspected of being the real Occaneechi Town.

The CD is technically superb. The software is written to support a graphics mode of 640 x 480 pixels. Images thus appear smaller on my screen and on those of others running in higher resolution modes. The "Read Me" file contains advice on how to get around interference with the Windows 95 Taskbar and other specific problems that will be encountered by some users. The authors have also anticipated many other questions with helpful advice in the "Read Me" file. Most users will not find it necessary to resort to these hints. As in any good software of this kind, there are many routes to the same ends and the cues are very clear to anyone with a working knowledge of written English. The graphics are very clear and the prose is unencumbered by fashionable obfuscation.

Educators will be delighted by the "Electronic Dig." Students should read the "Archaeology Primer" first, then move on to the "Electronic Dig Tutorial." One can restrict students by budgetary constraints in an electronic excavation simulation, using a modified command line. Occaneechi Town was completely excavated, and it is both educational and entertaining to see what happens if one has to make inferences on the basis of an excavation of only a portion of the site. Students can choose from an array of excavation strategies and take the interpretive consequences.

A close-up photo of an Occaneechi excavation.
A close-up photo of an Occaneechi excavation.
From Excavating Occaneechi Town
The authors have chosen to make all their graphics available as simple bitmap files. Maps are in AutoCAD Exchange format. Artifact data are in dBase III and Paradox formats. In other words, if you know a little about computers and have some additional software you can make your own use of the information on this CD-ROM rather easily. The authors trust us to abide by their fair use policy, a small price for the convenience afforded by their generosity.

I only wish that the excavators of Fredricks site had used the metric system. The CD-ROM would be much more useful to American archaeologists in the future and to the rest of the world right now if it were unburdened by the quaintly provincial British system of weights and measures that even the British do not find useful anymore. Partial abandonment of this anachronism only makes things worse. Bone weights are given in grams while estimated meat yields are given in pounds.

I am going to install my review copy of the CD-ROM on our departmental server (to be available to only one user at a time, of course), and I am hopeful that other institutions will do the same. I also hope that universities in other countries do the same, but asking non-American students to cope with feet and inches might discourage its use.

Excavating Occaneechi Town is an electronic publication worth imitating. Its hardware requirements are modest (486/66 or faster processor, Windows 3.1 or higher, 16 MB RAM, 25 MB disk space, and a double speed CD-ROM drive). My sound card is not working as I write this, so I found myself trying to read Trawick Ward's and Steve Davis's lips on the video clips, and others might encounter similar glitches not of the authors' making. Nevertheless, this is a CD-ROM that should be on every archaeologist's shelf, not just as a very useful current publication but as a model for the next century.

Dean R. Snow
The Pennsylvania State University

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CD-ROM Review of Excavating Occaneechi Town:
Archaeology of an Eighteenth-Century Indian Village in North Carolina

Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History

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Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998