Morganton archaeological site includes 16th century Native American town, Spanish fort

Students and professors at a Morganton archaeology site are working to reveal the remnants of a Native American town and 16-century Spanish fort, both on the same site in Morganton. (Photo credit: Warren Wilson College)

MORGANTON, N.C. -- Students and professors at a Morganton archaeology site are working to reveal the remnants of a Native American town and 16-century Spanish fort, both on the same site in Morganton.

Warren Wilson College students and archaeology professor David Moore are working at the Berry site outside of Morganton.

“There’s so much here,” said Moore. “There is nothing like this site anywhere else so far. This is the most intact 16th-century colonial fort in the U.S.”

Through Warren Wilson College’s Work Program, students use the Berry site to enhance academic study with applied learning.

“I’m a believer in a good story. I believe in history,” said Michael Thorpe, a senior on the archaeology crew, majoring in history and political science. “Everything we do out here, from troweling to sifting, it all goes to complete the story of the Berry Site and Fort San Juan.”

Named for the current landowners, the Berry site was once known as Joara, one of the largest native towns in western North Carolina. Spanish soldiers establishing a route to Mexico arrived in 1567 and erected Fort San Juan.

Initially, the residents of Joara were “cooperative and generous hosts,” according to Moore, but changed their approach when the Spanish did not reciprocate. By 1568, Fort San Juan and five other Spanish outposts in the region were destroyed, and the Spanish colonial capital on the coast of South Carolina abandoned its inland quest.

“This is one of the few instances when you have indigenous people in a successful act of resistance against the colonizing Europeans,” said Moore, who first excavated the site in 1986. “In the short run, this was a victory for Native Americans, but we know that didn’t last."

But the political and economic dynamics of the Catawba Valley, coupled with disease, led to a decline in indigenous populations. By the time new European settlers arrived roughly 150 years later, the area was devoid of Native Americans, according to Moore.

Undergraduates on the Archaeology Crew have the broadest interaction with the project. “The crew is involved in processing this material every summer. They contribute to all of our studies and publications. We have to understand what we uncovered each year. Their work helps us do all the fundamental analysis,” Moore said.

Warren Wilson College, Tulane University and the University of Michigan are the primary supporters of the research project, and the site is also affiliated with Western Piedmont Community College.

Through Moore and his research partners, professors Robin Beck of the University of Michigan and Christopher Rodning of Tulane University, students connect with their peers at other schools.

“Different institutions have different institutional cultures,” said Rodning. “Students learn more about the field of archaeology and how to do archaeology, and they find out more about the diversity of opportunities and experiences their peers are having across the country.”

Rodning believes the project is greater than the sum of its parts. “There are not that many longstanding research projects in archaeology, like this one, that are conducted at this scale with multiple institutions. Our collaboration enables an exchange of ideas and a scale of operation that would be difficult to maintain if it was just one of us,” he said.

Moore estimates over 600 students from across the U.S. have worked at the site since 2001. As of 2016 and after 16 years, he thinks the project is less than halfway to completion.

Public “Dig Days” are planned for Berry site in September and October.

For more information about fall Berry site “Dig Days” and tours, email or click here.

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