The Contributions of Bennie Carlton Keel to the Development of North Carolina Archaeology

By Davis, R. P. Stephen | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Contributions of Bennie Carlton Keel to the Development of North Carolina Archaeology


Davis, R. P. Stephen, Southeastern Archaeology


In October 2008, Bennie Keel retired from the National Park Service after a career in archaeology that spanned five decades. At the beginning of that distinguished career, Bennie worked in North Carolina, where he made lasting contributions to public archaeology and our understanding of the archaeological record, particularly as it relates to Cherokee ancestry and native peoples of the Piedmont region. Moreover, through his fieldwork at sites such as Garden Creek, Coweeta Creek, and Upper Saratown, he helped train dozens of future archaeologists, and the experience he gained from these projects served him well as one of the federal government's principal advocates for archaeology over the past three decades.

Between 1961 and 1973, Bennie Carlton Keel practiced archaeology in North Carolina, first as the resident archaeologist at Town Creek Indian Mound, where he developed the site's interpretive facilities, and then for more than a decade as senior staff archaeologist at the Research Laboratories of Anthropology (RLA) in Chapel Hill. During his tenure as RLA archaeologist, he undertook substantial research into Cherokee origins, defined the pre-Cherokee cultural sequence for the Appalachian Summit, laid the foundation for the University of North Carolina's (UNC) Siouan and Catawba projects, and helped train numerous students in archaeological field, laboratory, and analytical methods. Before leaving North Carolina in 1973 to take a teaching position at Wright State University, Bennie also was instrumental in restructuring the North Carolina Department of Archives and History's archaeology program to facilitate the state's oversight role pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act. On the occasion of Bennie's retirement from the National Park Service after more than 30 years of distinguished service, it is appropriate to reflect upon these and other important contributions he has made to North Carolina archaeology.

Bennie's academic path to his first permanent archaeological employment in North Carolina was neither direct nor short. After graduating -from Bay County High School, Panama City, in 1952, he attended Florida State University (FSU) for a little more than a year before dropping out and serving a three-year stint in the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell, where he was trained as a military policeman. In 1957 he returned to FSU and in January 1960 completed his bachelor's degree in anthropology. While an undergraduate, Bennie studied and served as a research assistant under Hale Smith and Charles Fairbanks and accumulated considerable field experience.

In 1959, Bennie participated in Fairbank's excavations at the Middle Woodland Money's Bend site near Cedar Bluff, Alabama, and the following spring published his first article on these investigations in the Florida Anthropologist (Keel 1960). During the summer of 1960, Bennie supervised the Alabama Museum of Natural History's salvage excavations for David Dejarnette at Seven Springs, Watson Ford, and Coker Ford, all located near Cedar Bluff, Alabama. The final report of this work, titled "Archaeological Investigations of the Weiss Reservoir of the Coosa River in Alabama," by Dejarnette, Kurjack, and Keel, was completed the following year but was not published until 1973, when it appeared in the Journal of Alabama Archaeology (Dejarnette et al. 1973).

The Town Creek Years

Shortly after Bennie completed his fieldwork near Cedar Bluff, he learned of a job opening in North Carolina. By this time he was nearing completion of his coursework for a master's degree at FSU. The position being advertised was for a Historic Site Specialist at Town Creek Indian Mound, a South Appalachian Mississippian siteLieing excavated under the direction of Joffre Coe at UNC-Chapel Hill and managed for public visitation by the state's Department of Archives and History. The successful applicant essentially would have to serve two bosses. In responding to Bennie's inquiry about potential employment, Coe (1960) summed up the job as follows: "We are interested in someone who can sell the program and make visits to the area interesting. …

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