Harlen Chavis always wanted to pursue a college degree, but like many in his family, he chose to enter the workforce. He perfected his skills as a welder for more than 20 years, but the idea of earning a bachelor’s degree still lingered in the back of his mind.
In 2018, Chavis hung up his torch to pursue his true passion — archaeology. A self-taught archaeologist and member of the Lumbee Tribe, Chavis has always been fascinated with ancient American Indian sites and artifacts left behind. Discovering the untold history of his Lumbee ancestors excites him.
Chavis enrolled at UNC Pembroke — his hometown university — to broaden his knowledge of these ancient sites and hone his archaeological skills. Since arriving on campus, Chavis quickly familiarized himself with the resources, archives and historical records tucked away at the Museum of the Southeast American Indian and instantly bonded with Nancy Fields, the museum’s curator. He also made valuable connections on the state level. An internship at the museum led to an in-depth history project with the Nature Conservancy of North Carolina.
He’s been contracted to search for archaeological evidence at Calloway Forrest game lands in Hoke County, to understand the original stewards better. While exploring during an internship last summer, he discovered what he believes is a rock carving or prehistoric petroglyph portraying a turtle shell with an elaborate cross carved through the center. Chavis along with other scholars theorize the design to be the first representation of a medicine wheel.
He has since discovered two other ancient rock carvings. Chavis, the son of a sharecropper from Maxton, has uncovered clay marbles, arrowheads, a stone pipe, and trade beads on previous digs but never anything of this magnitude.
Though his claims haven’t been confirmed by state experts, State Archaeologist John Mintz said the carvings does exhibit similarities with pictographs and petroglyphs. Mintz accompanied Chavis on a recent visit to Calloway Forrest.
“Harlen is dedicated, passionate, and very respectful in what he does, which is trying to help record, preserve, interpret and share the American Indian experience in North Carolina,” Mintz said. “He, like myself, believes that if we can know our past, we can better understand our present which will help inform us on the future.”
Debbie Crane, communications director for the Nature Conservancy, said Chavis’s research is preserving and protecting Calloway Forrest.
“We couldn’t do this work without him. Harlen is an amazing person to work with — full of knowledge,” Crane said. “He has an incredible eye. He’s helping us fill in the history of these preserves like Calloway Forrest and tell the story of these Indigenous tribes.”
At 44, Chavis has been invited to speak to various groups including the Board of Trustees, and share how his UNCP experience enabled him to transform his love for artifacts and history from a hobby to a career.
“UNCP has been wonderful,” said Chavis, who will graduate on May 6. “All my life, I’ve been wanting to know more about UNCP, even as a teenager. When I finally arrived here, I was excited because this is home. Being a student here has opened so many doors in terms of internships and networking. It’s like a dream come true.”