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 Montpelier Magazine


Two women vie FOR PRIDE OF PLACE IN THE LIFE OF BILLY OLIVER ('77), Ph.D. One is his most tolerant and understanding wife, Michelle (Miki), to whom he's been married for 32 years. The other is the mysterious and, until recently, unyielding Sara, an older woman whose alluring secrets have wielded a mesmerizing power over Oliver and drawn national media to his door.

Sara is a re-creation of a Saura woman from Upper Sauratown, the village of the Saura Indians first identified from early maps circa 1733. The Saura tribe once lived along the border between North Carolina and Virginia. Oliver and a specialized team created Sara for the North Carolina Museum of History between 1990 and 1994.

As an archaeologist and director of development for the N.C. Office of State Archaeology's Sauratown Woman Project, Oliver oversaw the first full-body forensic and costume reconstruction of its kind. Through intricate studies of eroding bead patterns, shell jewelry and brass ornaments, the team determined the exact design and decoration of Sara's garb. Costume designers from the motion picture Dances with Wolves sewed the animal skins together and embroidered each obscure bead to make its linear pattern. More than 43,000 European glass beads adorn Sara's deerskin dress.

Using skeletal remains, the team calculated that the woman stood a modest 5 feet 2 inches tall and had a muscular build of about 120 pounds. A forensic sculptor built a clay model of Sara's head and face from a plaster cast of the original skull. The body cast was then drawn from a female model who matched the Sauratown woman's physical attributes, and the model was adorned with historically accurate garb. Brickside Studios, who created figures for Star Wars, produced the body cast.

Few people realize the diversity that once existed among American Indians, according to Oliver. "Modern perspectives have been dramatically shaped by television and the movies. … The Sauratown woman presented an opportunity to merge scientific information, archaeological knowledge and artistic skill to create a vision of a woman of high status among her people. The project not only accurately reconstructed the physical appearance but also revealed the sophisticated art of her final regalia, beaded hood and garment. Identification of such a beaded hood and the full-bodied reconstruction using forensic techniques were both firsts. Nothing of this scope had been done previously. A unique fragment of Saura history that would have remained forever lost was returned to view through an interdisciplinary scientific approach. The veil of time was pulled back briefly, and an image was captured of a real person who once lived and died in the New World."

Other than the John White watercolors depicting the coastal American Indians who encountered the Roanoke colonists in 1585, images illustrating the physical appearance
of those who walked this land before the Europeans simply do not exit. Consequently, much of the knowledge and traditions of their ancestors has been lost to the modern descendants of these ancient first Americans.

Sara, the archaeological achievement, stands proudly in the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh and has attracted local, state and national media including National Geographic magazine.

"I have been blessed with a number of unique opportunities to conduct archaeological research, create innovative projects and work with exceptional colleagues," says
Oliver. His work with the Sauratown woman and other archaeological projects "represents
a legacy from the past for the future and which will outlast my lifetime," he adds.

In 1989, Oliver conceived of and co-founded the N.C. Center for Archaeological Research Inc., a nonprofit organization to support statewide archaeological research and public education projects. After the death of archaeology legend Joffre Coe, Oliver honored his mentor by renaming his organization the Coe Foundation for Archaeological Research Inc. "Coe's influence refined the knowledge and skills I learned at Madison and placed my feet firmly in the soils of the ancient past," explains Oliver.

Oliver's office overlooks cabinets filled with ancient stone pipes and platters, pieces of jugs and utensils, jewelry beads and human bones. The $5 million facility began as an idea sketched on a napkin in the 1980s. The 18,000-square-foot building now serves as N.C. state's repository for archaeological collections, and the specimens include more than 5 million artifacts," says Oliver.

When Oliver began his work for the state of North Carolina in 1982, he oversaw all of the archaeological work performed in the 50 counties of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain areas. At that time, North Carolina had no centralized repository for artifacts, and it was Oliver's sketch that started the ball rolling. Before Sara occupied his days, Oliver was active in many field projects throughout the region. One of his favorite projects began as his dissertation, Settlements of the Pee Dee Culture. Oliver continued work on this project that Joffre Coe had begun in 1937. "My work with Town Creek and the Pee Dee Culture projects contributed a chronological sequence to better interpret the cultural changes found there during 50 years of meticulous archaeology by Dr. Coe," says Oliver.

The project focused on the Pee Dee Indians who lived about 500 to 1,000 years ago in North Carolina's southern Piedmont. Coe's 50-year study and Oliver's careful examination of outlying villages led to the discovery that the tribe first concentrated in areas near the Pee Dee River, where they built semi-subterranean earth lodges for ceremonial purposes at the first Teal Site in Anson County, then near Town Creek in Montgomery County. The earth lodge at Town Creek was successfully covered over to ultimately form a 20-foot high earthen platform mound. After extensive research, Oliver identified three phases of Pee Dee cultural development that marked the earliest radiocarbon dates for the appearance of corn and beans in North Carolina.

Oliver, who was the first Madison College student to pursue graduate study in archaeology, had planned to study law after graduation. A general-requirement course pointed him in the direction of Martha Caldwell's art history class. "Many students were asleep in that class," Caldwell laughs, "but Billy was interested. He asked incredible questions."

The close student-teacher relationship that Oliver had formed with Caldwell was one of many during his days at Madison. His curriculum path also directed him to Clarence Geier's Introduction to Archaeology and Native American Studies courses. Oliver
was also part of a work-study program in the department of sociology. "I was surprised to learn that Dr. Geier requested that my assignment be coordinated with him," Oliver says. "My first assignment was to sort through piles of rock and refuse material from stone tool manufacturing. That assignment may not sound exciting to many, but Dr. Geier had an ability to inspire people. He made it fun to learn."

Through his work with Geier, Oliver got involved in JMU's first archaeological field school held at the Kemper and Dilworth sites on the banks of the Shenandoah River. Oliver
served as student laboratory supervisor for the field school and later as crew chief for the Back Creek and Hidden Valley projects -- all led by Geier. "As they say, the rest is history," Oliver laughs.

"In a lot of ways, Billy was instrumental to a lot of these field programs," says Geier. "He rapidly became one of the primary team leaders. The thing I enjoyed about him most was our relationship. He always pressed me as a teacher and always made me think a
little harder. … We gave him the opportunities, but it was his own strength of character that made him successful."

"The students in Geier's field schools really worked together," recalls Oliver. "At the time, I had no idea that the silent forces of destiny were directing my course along a path that would lead to UNC-Chapel Hill, where I would be mentored by one of the giants of American archaeology, Joffre Coe," he says. "I worked for Coe as a graduate student, class instructor and research assistant."

Learning from a legend helped to build Oliver's strong commitment to teach younger generations the skills necessary to be successful archaeologists. Through the Coe Foundation, (as executive director), and the N.C. Office of State Archaeology, Oliver teaches students how to read and catalog artifacts to make a complete story. "The primary purpose of an archaeologist is to offer meaningful explanations of past events," he says. "My ability to do so has its roots at JMU. Sharing what I learned under Drs. Coe and Geier is the favorite part of my job. Imparting the knowledge you have discovered with others in such a way that it enlightens them and creates a stronger advocacy for archaeological programs is amazing."

Audra Slaymaker, a former intern at the research center says, "Dr. Oliver helped me improve my skills in archaeology, collections management and conservation. He made me aware of educational and career options and put me in touch with great contacts that led to my current employment at the Museum of History in Raleigh."

Oliver's passion and guidance brings Slaymaker back to the center to volunteer each week. "I feel fortunate to be exposed to Dr. Oliver's knowledge and guidance."

Story by Lisa Freedman ('05)

Photos by Lisa Freedman and courtesy of Billy Oliver ('77)