Robeson County, Lumber River, megalodon, shark teeth, Indian canoe, Lumbee Tribe, UNC Pembroke, scuba diver

Border Belt People: A Q&A with Paul Valenti, historian and Lumber River diver

By Kerria Weaver

Paul Valenti, 69, works as the chief water plant operator in Lumberton, but he is also well known for being a historian and scuba diver.

Born and raised in Lumberton, Valenti has explored the Lumber River, finding many historical artifacts from megalodon shark teeth to an 1,100-year-old canoe.

The Border Belt Independent spoke with Valenti about his experience as a diver and what it meant for him to discover different artifacts.

Q. Where did your interest in becoming an historian and a diver come from?

In Robeson County you can go to the river because stratification of the bed exposes different layers of soil. It’s like the Grand Canyon. My older brother would take me to the river and we would dig for shark teeth. When you jump in the river, it’s like jumping in a 300-year time span into the past. You find megalodon fossils and Indian artifacts in the river, so you’ve got a large span of time in the river.

Q. At what age did you learn how to swim?

I was in my 30s when I learned how to swim. I had a deathly fear of water, and I almost drowned as a child. I went to UNC Pembroke to take swimming lessons and joined the Braves Club, which offered swimming classes.

Robeson County, Lumber River, megalodon, shark teeth, Indian canoe, Lumbee Tribe, UNC Pembroke
A current image of scuba diver Paul Valenti of Lumberton. Submitted photo

Q. What other hobbies do you have other than diving?

I used to do antique bottle shows. We started a bottle club for people who had similar interests. I would get access from the recreation department to have our meetings in one of their rooms at no cost. Bottle shows are all over the country and they vary in degrees. Some people collect small things and some things can be worth thousands of dollars or more. Many people couldn’t afford to get off work and go to another state for a bottle show, so we decided to have our own and it really grew. At one point we were set up at the Southeastern Ag Center in Lumberton for two half-days. It was gigantic. People came from all over the country after we handed out flyers at other shows. It was a lot of fun, but unfortunately, people in the club would pass away or just lose interest.

Q. Do you need a license for this task?

You have to have a license to buy air for diving. You have to be certified by an instructor; you can’t just buy compressed air to go diving. You have to have an open water card that shows that you have been trained and earned certification. It’s like a driver’s license.

Q. When did you get an interest in Indian artifacts?

A close friend of mine got me interested. I happened to be looking for bottles one day and I bumped into the canoe that’s at UNCP right now. It kind of tickled my guess of what I thought it was. You see a log that looks like it’s burnt and it turns out to be an Indian canoe. The way the canoe looked when we found it compared to now is a lot different. When you pull things out of the water and into air they start oxidizing. Many things don’t hold up well when air hits them.

Q. What tools or techniques did you use to find objects in the river?

A lot of people would go in the water and fan the bottom with their hands  or something else. I was always looking for bottles. I took a steel probe and probed the sand. When I would hit glass it would have a squeaking sound. You would know it was glass but not know whether it was broken or whole.

In the middle to late ‘70s they put a dike at the Lumber River for flood control and they had to dig these big holes. They hit all of these shark teeth that were buried. When you start digging through all these layers, it’s like a time machine as you get deeper. I got a water pump and used water pressure like a fire hose, which would strip the soil away without damaging what you find. When you can sit there and strip land away and see stuff that’s five and 10 million years old and you’re the first person to see it, it’ll give you kind of a rush. 

Q. Did you explore any other rivers other than the Lumber River?

No, not really. I went to Florida to scuba dive, but I was just mostly diving in the Lumber River. I went up a little ways and down some. I was never a real good scuba diver. If you’re not, you can die down there. I’ve gotten hung up a couple of times and it’s hard not to panic. Even with a light, sometimes you can’t even see the length of your arm. That’s how black the water is.

Q. How do you determine whether the item is worth any historical significance?

You learn it and you just know. For some people it’s like a language. With bottles I can look at them and tell if they are hand blown, open pontil, or iron pontil. Some people just don’t really catch on. There’s books and reference material everywhere you can use. You got the Woodland period, which is the newer stuff, and the Archaic and Paleo periods, which had the older stuff when people first started coming to America. You can’t carbon date stone artifacts. What you do is find something organic in proximity to the artifact and carbon date that instead. You can then get an idea of the time frame.

Q. What would you say is your most interesting find or discovery?

As far as historical significance and what people are interested in, it would be the shark teeth because they are eye-catching. I’ve also found porcelain license plates and just some really old stuff. I was over near UNCP and found a carved turtlehead. For the money these things are worth, I would rather have it in the hands of a museum if they put it on public display. I don’t want it to get shoved in a back room where nobody can see it. You want it where people can see it and enjoy it.

Paul Valenti looks over his collection of megalodon shark teeth he found in Robeson County. He also located an 1,100 year-old canoe in the Lumber River that’s now on display at UNC Pembroke. Submitted photo