Big dig: 5 underground finds from Native American, Spanish past that explain WNC
Archaeologist David Moore first stuck a shovel in the grounds of the Berry Site in 1986. Today, he is still digging.
Over three decades, Moore has helped unearth a precise moment of Western North Carolina history. In 1567, Spanish settlers — some of the first Europeans to enter the region — built Fort San Juan at a Native American town called Joara, which lies in present-day Burke County. For a fleeting period, settlers lived peacefully alongside the local tribe, ancestors of the Catawba Indians.
To Moore, a professor at Warren Wilson and co-director of the Berry Site (named for the land’s current owners), fort and village remnants hold lingering lessons much larger than the artifacts themselves.
“The more we understand about our past, the more insight we have into ourselves,” Moore said. “It's said 1,000 different ways, but it's always true.”
Moore sat down with the Citizen Times to display five objects from Joara and Fort San Juan that show how modern behaviors echo actions of the past and explain our world today.
The armor was protection, but not from bullets, arrows or anything of this world. Based on medieval European tradition, Spanish settlers placed this metal outside the kitchen door to ward off witches and evil spirits. Settlers worried Cherokee women, who worked in the kitchen, would poison their meals with nefarious curses.
The size of two quarters, the jack of plate armor shows supernatural beliefs stretch far back into this region’s past.
“Superstitions are powerful cultural touchstones,” Moore said. “This metal gives us insight into the issues of culture contact and the fear we can have of meeting the other.”
A mighty deer
In this headless miniature deer, Moore sees proof of the good that can come when cultures align. The piece likely results from Native Americans and Europeans living harmoniously with nature and with each other.
“It’s small but mighty,” Moore said.
Whether the carver was a Native American or settler, Moore believes the statue was a byproduct of the two worlds working as one. Perhaps the Spanish shared their advanced carving techniques with a Native American artist? Or perhaps a Native American guided a Spanish carver through the deer-filled forests?
“We have so many problems today in our modern world where we look at ourselves and we look at other people, we distance ourselves from other people,” Moore said. “We can look to the past and see the incredible result of a diversity of culture.”
Relations between Native Americans and settlers would soon sour. Yet evidence of the cultures coinciding endures in this finger-sized deer.
“At first glance, it's just a rough looking pipe,” Moore said.
With two subtle nubs for eyes and a pair of even tinier bumps for nostrils, the pipe reveals itself to be shaped like an upside-down cat, with smoke exiting through its wide open mouth.
“Smoking was not a social activity,” Moore said of local Native American habits. “Smoking was a ritual activity. Smoke was usually seen as a connection between this world and the upper world.”
Smoking would not remain just a ritual activity. Europeans brought the crop back to the Old World, and a global obsession commenced.
By the 20th century, North Carolina tobacco grew into a multimillion dollar industry; the economic backbone of communities across the state.
“This is where tobacco originated, and tobacco changed the world,” Moore said.
This cat pipe links a tobacco tradition across centuries.
Cooking pot conflict
A single cooking pot shard tells a story of conflict. Not war between the Native Americans and European settlers — history would soon be filled with those — but conflict between the tribe around Joara and the Cherokee.
The pot is crafted in a Cherokee style. Yet the pot was made using clay and soapstone specific to the Joara area. Moore infers the potter was a Cherokee woman captured in battle around Eastern Tennessee and brought back east to Joara and the Spanish settlement.
“These pieces of common pottery tell a story about inter-Indian conflict,” Moore said.
Moore says the Catawba ancestors may have gifted captured Cherokees to the Spanish as a strategy to keep the European newcomers on their side, adding a political side to the cooking pot.
A peace ends
Native Americans at Joara initially welcomed their Spanish visitors, but good relations soon withered. Moore says the Native Americans likely grew frustrated after settlers did not reciprocate the Native American’s hospitality with favorable trade conditions.
Settlers used harquebuses — primitive guns — but the crossbow was their most valued weapon. Moore says the Spanish viewed crossbows as proprietary technology, too valuable to trade away to the Native Americans.
Joara residents did not need the crossbow to drive out the settlers. By 1568, less than two years after the Spanish arrived, Fort San Juan was destroyed, and the settlers fled the region.
It would be another 150 years before Europeans returned to the area. This time they were English, and this time they stayed.