Decoding Joara

Special to the Caldwell Journal by Daniel B. Rundquist…It never takes long for folks to figure out that I’m a history junkie. People who have spent more than a few minutes with me or have read my work know that no matter what the subject, they are about to get a mini history lesson of some kind. I make no apologies. So I may provide a little food for thought—guilty as charged. As a result, I am always looking for another important page from history to study. I seem to have recently stumbled onto one in Morganton, NC.

Because the field of archaeology holds the keys to uncovering our past, I contacted the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology to see if there were any opportunities for public participation at an active site. One of the sites they recommended was the Berry Site in Morganton, named after the family that owns the property. A few more minutes on the web and I was a registered volunteer, ready to head out to my first dig at the Berry Site. A few days later, I packed up a few eats in a cooler and headed out to the dig site on a warm, sunny, Saturday morning.

The Berry Site has a lot to tell us—certainly more story than I can cover here. There are two stories, really. There is the timeline of the Berry Site itself, that is, the discovery of the location as an archaeologically significant site and the work being done there. The site predates both Jamestown and Roanoke which has many archaeologists and historians re-evaluating the established timeline and events of North American exploration and settlement. This fact alone solidly establishes the Berry Site as important.

Then there is the more dramatic historical narrative. This is a tale of the events of the Native American town of Joara, Spanish explorers Hernan de Soto, Juan Pardo and Fort San Juan all unfolding in 1567. The details are emerging over time as both archaeologists and historians work to discover the answers and fill in the blanks. The narrative we have so far reads like an outline for a gritty docu-drama; a thriving Native American trade community where a group of less-than-friendly Spaniards takes up residence in the backdrop of the rugged North American frontier. Tensions mount until one day a catalyst of some event precipitates a massive conflict that ends in the destruction of the unwelcome invaders. The storyline is made to order for an ambitious writer.

I can’t say that I ever spent much time with any archaeologists prior to my day at the Berry Site. Now I know that their passion in their field and attention to detail makes them a very special breed— where would history be without them? The archaeology team at the Berry Site is led by Dr. David Moore who works full-time at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. While Dr. Moore was not present on my dig day, Ms. Melissa Timo is a Staff Archaeologist at the Exploring Joara Foundation and was there to greet me. She can tell you all about the site and the details we know so far. She skillfully lays out the timeline and background of the circumstances at Fort San Juan and Joara in such detail one might come away with the impression that she was an eyewitness. I won’t steal her thunder here with spoilers of those details, but listening to Melissa will make you almost believe that she just left the Spaniards and their fort an hour before. She is truly a benefit to the project.

Another unsung heroine of this adventure is Ms. Abra Johgart who was also on hand to direct the excavation. She graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011 and is now the lab assistant for the archaeology crew. We all worked hard that day, but Abra did most of the digging and all of the lab paperwork. Like Melissa, she really knows her subject and could tell at a glance what sort of material we were uncovering. A small piece a charcoal uncovered late in the day at the bottom of the excavation unit (that would be the hole we were digging in) brought a smile to her face when I asked her about it. Apparently it is all but certain that this one little piece is a part of the remains of the burned Fort San Juan, confirming that we were digging in the right place. For an archaeology crew digging for weeks in the hot North Carolina sun, that is certainly something to smile about.

The work of the archaeologist is similar to that of an investigator, uncovering clue after clue to build an ever more accurate picture of an event of the past. The Berry Site is history unfolding right in front of us. No other location in our area presents us with an opportunity to get this close to history being uncovered. You could become a part of this incredible story by connecting with the Exploring Joara Foundation. They are sponsoring a Public Field Day at the Berry Site on June 24th, 2017 to provide the opportunity to visit and tour the excavation; to learn about Joara and Fort San Juan; to meet the dedicated staff and volunteers whose efforts to decode the past are presently underway. You can learn more about the Exploring Joara Foundation at their web site:

Thank you to Dan Rundquist for this very fine article about our local history!

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