Excavating the past

When UNC alumnus Robin Beck was a young boy, he loved roaming the Morganton-area farm owned by his uncle and aunt, James and Pat Berry, in the North Carolina foothills. The land has been in the Berry family since before the Revolutionary War.

As Beck walked around kicking up dirt, he was amazed at the arrowheads and pieces of pottery he found. The budding archaeologist would then match those pieces of pottery with pictures in books at the neighboring McDowell County Library.

At the time, Beck said, he had no idea of the significance of what was underneath his feet.

Years later, Beck went on to pursue a doctoral degree at Northwestern and became an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He would join two UNC archaeology alumni to document the earliest European settlement in the interior of the United States on the Berry land.

Built in 1567, well before The Lost Colony and Jamestown

Fort San Juan was established at the site of the American Indian town of Joara in 1567, two decades before The Lost Colony at Roanoke Island, 40 years before Jamestown.

Explorer Juan Pardo named the Spanish settlement Cuenca after his hometown in Spain. It lasted less than 18 months before the relationship between the Indians and the Spanish soldiers took a disastrous turn. The fort was burned to the ground, as were other forts built by Pardo. One Spanish soldier escaped and brought news to the Spanish colonial capital at Santa Elena, S.C. (today’s Parris Island), that the experiment was over.

The North Carolina Office of Archives and History, in explaining the historical marker erected in Morganton, wrote: “The Berry site witnessed one of the longest periods of sustained contact between Europeans and the peoples of North America’s interior until the 17th century.”

Beck, who graduated from Carolina in 1991, and his Tar Heel colleagues David Moore, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C.,  and Christopher Rodning, an associate professor of anthropology at Tulane University, formed the Exploring Joara Foundation to support their long-term work at the Berry site. Moore received his doctorate from Carolina in 1999 and Rodning received his in 2004.

The slogan of the Exploring Joara Foundation is “Unearthing the forgotten past.” It is a unique partnership, committed to a strong outreach component. Summer camps, field schools, teacher workshops and an annual archaeology festival allow the scientists to share their finds with the public and to have students participate regularly in their work.

Moore, who has been excavating at the site since 1986, said the story of Fort San Juan and Joara has great significance beyond a pretty 12-acre field in Burke County, which today is surrounded by a tree farm.

“The story here is exciting. It’s compelling. It’s fascinating,” says Moore, who served for 18 years with the N.C. Office of State Archaeology. “It’s important for people to understand real Native American history — the heroics, the tragedies, the disappointments. … This is a site at which you have an episode of the classic Colonial encounter that happened thousands of times as Western Europeans began to colonize the rest of the world.”

Read more in the College of Arts and Sciences magazine.

Story by Kim Weaver Spurr and video by Beth Lawrence in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Published October 31, 2013.