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Catawba River, North Carolina, Cultural Chronology From Late Woodland to Catawba Valley Mississippian

by David G. Moore


North Carolina's Catawba River valley has only recently been recognized for its relatively large late prehistoric and protohistoric period native occupation. The Burke phase Berry site, the probable location of the sixteenth-century native town of Joara and of Juan Pardo's Fort San Juan, is the best-known site in the region. This paper presents an overview of the cultural chronology of North Carolina's Catawba River Valley and places the Berry site within the context of the regional cultural chronology. Finally, this paper looks broadly at the Catawba Valley Mississippian population as evidenced in the Burke and Cowans Ford phases.

Paper presented in the symposium, Cofitachequi and Beyond: Archaeological Research in the Catawba-Wateree Valley, at the 60th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina, November 13-15, 2003.


In the early 1980's, researchers proposed that sixteenth-century Spanish armies under Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo passed through the Catawba River valley. Some researchers also suggested that the influence of the sixteenth-century chiefdom of Cofitachequi, extended northward into the upper Catawba River valley. At the time, however, we had little information regarding sixteenth-century native populations in the Catawba region, much less any ability to describe regional polities and their potential political relations. We were aware that the upper valley region featured suspected late Mississippian sites with soapstone-tempered Burke pottery. W.H. Holmes first noted this pottery at mound sites in the upper Yadkin River and he observed that much of it resembled modern Catawba Indian pottery gathered in the late nineteenth century. Over the years, others have made the same observations regarding the similarity of Historic Catawba pottery to prehistoric ceramics found in the upper Yadkin and Catawba valleys.

Since 1986, with work at the Berry site and with a valley-wide ceramics analysis, it has become clear that a relatively large late prehistoric and protohistoric native population, called Catawba Valley Mississippians, was present throughout the valley. In addition, the Berry site in the upper region of the valley has been proposed as the location of Joara, the native town at which Juan Pardo built Fort San Juan in 1567. The following two papers will discuss the current investigations at Berry and Fort San Juan. This paper examines the regional cultural chronology in order to place the Berry site within the context of the greater Catawba Valley Mississippian population.

Background to Chronology

The chronology is based on data from numerous sources. These include surface surveyed materials from Roy Dickens and Robert Keeler in the 1970s, excavations that I conducted in 1986 at the Shuford, McDowell, and Berry sites; Kenneth Robinson's survey and excavation data in McDowell County, and additional survey and excavation data from sites in the lower valley conducted by Alan May and Janet Levy, and in the upper Yadkin valley by Larry Kimball and Ned Woodall. The final source is the Cowans Ford Reservoir survey. As these data are not well known I will take a moment to describe this project. Duke Power Company began construction of the Cowans Ford Dam in 1959. When completed in 1963, the impoundment created Lake Norman covering over 35,000 acres in four counties. During construction, students under the direction of Joffre Coe at the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill surveyed the proposed impoundment area.

There is no written report and very little documentation of these survey activities at the RLA. However, more than 300 sites were recorded, and test excavations were conducted on at least 10 sites. The limited survey information includes site forms, burial forms, field site maps, notations on field bags, and short daily reports from testing activities at three sites:

In addition, a reservoir map was prepared which shows the size and location of each site. Unfortunately, documentation of the survey methods it is not possible to determine whether the site sizes as mapped reflect the actual size of the sites. Despite the limitations of the survey data, the survey was crucial to understanding the chronology of settlement in the middle Catawba valley.

All of these data sources were included in my dissertation analysis of over 19,000 potsherds from more than 300 sites in the entire Catawba River valley

Catawba Valley Chronology

The Catawba valley chronology is based on regional ceramic types, radiocarbon dates, and the presence of sixteenth century Spanish artifacts on several sites in the upper Catawba and Yadkin River valleys. At this time, we have very little data for the Middle and late Woodland periods. Middle Woodland Connestee and Yadkin ceramics and late Woodland Uwharrie ceramics are found widely scattered but in very small numbers in the upper valley. Downriver in the Lake Norman area, Yadkin, Uwharrie, and Dan River ceramics are relatively common but are still far less frequent than the later Lamar- related Cowans Ford ceramics. Due to the limitations of the existing data on Woodland sites, I have made no attempt to frame phase designations for the Woodland period in the Catawba valley but it is fair to say that Woodland period sites are sparsely distributed in the region.

Mississippian period sites, on the other hand, are far more common. The Mississippian period phases are broadly formulated; it is not yet possible to distinguish shorter temporal units. However, the regional pottery types correspond to the broad chronological patterns seen in the Lamar culture area. In developing the regional chronology, it was clear that the Cowans Ford and Burke ceramics were variants of the Lamar ceramics found in Georgia and South Carolina and in fact, the valley has been recognized as representing the northern limits of the Lamar culture area. The high frequency of curvilinear complicated stamping, carinated bowls with Lamar incising, and medium-to-wide thickened and punctated jar rims is most similar to Tugalo phase (A.D. 1450-1600) pottery in the upper Savannah River. Because the Catawba region was so poorly known, I proposed the term Catawba valley Mississippian (which I also derive from Ferguson's South Appalachian Mississippian culture area) to describe the late prehistoric populations in the Catawba valley in an attempt to develop a better understanding of the region on its own terms.

Mississippian period Pisgah pottery is found on sites in the extreme upper valley but the predominate ceramic type throughout the upper Catawba and Yadkin valleys is Burke pottery, a soapstone tempered Lamar-style ware. While Burke pottery is also found downstream, another Lamar-variant, Cowans Ford, is the most common pottery found on sites in the Lake Norman area. Burke and Cowans Ford pottery differ only in temper and paste characteristics. Radiocarbon dates and the association with Spanish artifacts firmly place the Burke and Cowans Ford ceramics at least as early as the fifteenth century and perhaps as late as the mid-seventeenth century and we are now able to describe several Mississippian and protohistoric phases for the Catawba valley and the nearby upper Yadkin River valley. I will briefly review these phases and then discuss in greater detail the Burke and Low phases.


Pitts Phase A.D. 1200-1400
Thus far, we have been unable to firmly document early Mississippian components on sites in the region. One exception is the Pitts phase, named for the Pitts site, located about one mile upstream from Berry. The phase is defined solely on the basis of the site's ceramic assemblage, an early assemblage of Burke pottery. It should be stressed that it is difficult to identify early Mississippian sites throughout the valley. It is possible that this is a result of dealing with many mixed surface ceramic assemblages. However, it seems quite clear that the ceramic attributes associated with early Lamar pottery to the south are mostly absent from the Catawba valley.

Pleasant Garden Phase A.D. 1400-1600
Sites with ceramics that correspond closely to Middle Lamar phase pottery are found in high frequencies throughout the valley. I have identified four phases for the time period A.D. 1400- 1600. Approximately 25 Pleasant Garden phase sites are found on the upper headwater tributaries and on the main stem of the Catawba River in McDowell County. The phase dates are based on the occurrence of Burke, Pisgah, and McDowell ceramics, a calibrated radiocarbon date of A.D. 1441, and a possible fragment of sixteenth-century Spanish chain mail found at the McDowell site.

Elkin Phase A.D. 1400-1600
The Elkin phase is proposed to represent sites on the upper Yadkin whose ceramic assemblages include ceramics with Burke and Pisgah type attributes but more commonly consist of Dan River and Smyth pottery. A complete inventory of Elkin phase sites has not been completed but it is likely that 15-20 Elkin phase sites are located on the upper Yadkin, east of the Nelson Mound vicinity.

Burke Phase A.D. 1400-1600
Burke phase sites are characterized by extremely high frequencies of Burke series pottery and are concentrated on Upper Creek and John's River, south-flowing tributaries of the Catawba River. They are also heavily represented in the upper Yadkin River valley. More than 50 Burke phase sites have been located. The Berry site is the best-known Burke Phase site. Other major Burke phase sites are the Michaux Farm site on Johns River and the Nelson Mound and Triangle, the Davenport Jones Mound and the Broyhill Dillard Mound site on the Yadkin River in Caldwell County. Burke pottery at the Berry site is associated with two fifteenth-century radiocarbon dates. However, the general ceramic assemblage attributes and the presence of sixteenth-century Spanish artifacts at Berry and at the Nelson Mound and Triangle sites support a mid- to late sixteenth-century occupation as well.

Low Phase A.D. 1400-1600
The Low phase is named after the Low site (31ID31), located on the east side of the Catawba River in Iredell County. Low phase sites feature ceramic assemblages that consist primarily of Cowans Ford Complicated Stamped, Cowans Ford Plain, and Cowans Ford Burnished pottery types. Over 150 Low phase sites are located on the floodplain and terraces of the middle Catawba River valley within the flood pool of Lake Norman. Small numbers of Low Phase sites have been recorded outside of the lake shores. It should also be pointed out that the pottery from the Low site has in the past been viewed as representing protohistoric Catawba Indian pottery.

South Fork of the Catawba River
Finally, I have not named a phase for the area along the South Fork of the Catawba River; however, work here by Alan May and Janet Levy has clearly shown that a number of fifteenth and sixteenth-century sites are likely located in this area.

Happy Valley Phase A.D. 1600-1700
Following the abundance of fifteenth and sixteenth-century sites in the region, there are surprisingly few sites that appear to date to the seventeenth century or later. I have defined three protohistoric period phases for the region. Happy Valley phase sites are found on Upper Creek, Johns River and at the head of the Yadkin River. This phase is distinguished from the earlier Burke phase on the basis of a seventeenth-century radiocarbon date and "late" Burke ceramics from the Broyhill Mound site. Late Burke ceramics are characterized by large curvilinear complicated stamped motifs and Burke-incised designs with more than four lines; these attributes are thought to be late Lamar attributes in South Carolina and Georgia. Four Happy Valley phase sites have been identified.

Iredell Phase A.D. 1600-1700
Several sites in the middle Catawba valley represent the Iredell phase. These sites are characterized by the presence of Cowans Ford Complicated Stamped with large, "exploded" motifs and wide, folded and punctated jar rims. Fewer than 10 Iredell phase sites have been identified on the basis of the ceramic characteristics. It is expected that further investigations of Iredell phase sites will reveal limited presence of European artifacts.

Belk Farm Phase A.D. 1680-1725
The Belk Farm phase is defined as the early historic period component at the Belk Farm site, 31MK85. The ceramic assemblage features Cowans Ford Complicated stamped, Burnished, Plain smoothed, and corncob impressed. More than one hundred glass trade beads were recovered and this assemblage is believed to date to 1680-1725. Again, given the abundant fifteenth and sixteenth century sites in the valley, it is remarkable that the Belk Farm site is the only site in the region at which late seventeenth or eighteenth century European artifacts have been found. It seems likely that the Belk Farm site may represent the location of a town linked to the Esaw/Catawba of ca. 1700.

Catawba Valley Mississippian: Burke and Cowans Ford Phases

Clearly, the phases described above suffer from uneven and biased data sets; however, as currently formulated they reflect clear patterns of occupation in the Catawba and upper Yadkin River valleys, especially in the late prehistoric and protohistoric periods. Most striking is the frequency of sites that dramatically increases in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while later sites are nearly non-existent. It is estimated that more than 250 fifteenth and sixteenth century sites are located in the valley. Fewer than 10 are estimated for the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Currently, the Burke and Cowans Ford phases are the most fully formulated phases of the regional. It seems clear that large numbers of sites, and a wide range of site sizes are associated with both phases. Although the data is extremely limited for the Cowans Ford phase, several general observations are clear.

First, there appears to be a much higher frequency of Low phase sites than for any earlier or later phase in the entire Catawba valley. Low phase sites range in size from less than half a hectare to more than four hectares. In addition, notes from the RLA refer to a mound at site 31CT30. Unfortunately, the extant records provide little documentation for the mound and it is difficult to determine whether this was a cultural or natural formation. It is possible that the Low phase settlement pattern is similar to that of the Burke phase; the clearest evidence for which is found in Rob Beck's survey of the Upper Creek/Warrior Fork drainage in Burke County.

Beck's probabilistic survey recorded 24 new and three previously recorded Burke phase sites. For 21 of these sites, Beck was able to establish reliable site boundaries ranging from less than .5 hectare to 5 hectares. Based on site size Beck identified eleven Fourth Order sites (< .5 ha), seven Third Order sites (.8 - 2.0 ha), two Second Order sites (2.7-2.8 ha), and one First Order site, the Berry site, covered 4.9 ha. Beck summarizes the Burke settlement pattern along Upper Creek and Warrior Fork as consisting of: one large, single mound, First Order site, Berry, with at least nine large, nucleated, non-mound, Second and Third Order settlements distributed at very regular intervals along the stream; the third Order sites seem to occur in pairs, while the larger, Second Order sites seem to be unpaired. Finally, a substantial number of very small, Fourth Order sites, possibly homesteads, surround, and are distributed between, settlements of the larger three size classes. In contrast to the larger sites, there appears to be little regularity to the distribution of Fourth Order sites.

In addition to a possibly hierarchical settlement pattern, distinct mound sites appear to be an important part of the Burke phase settlement pattern. Two forms of human-made earthen structures have been identified at Burke phase sites. These include probable substructure mounds at the Berry and Michaux Farm sites and geometric shaped pits with mortuary complexes at the T.F. Nelson, W. Davenport Jones, and Lenoir Burial Pit sites. These sites have been commonly referred to in the literature as mounds. These mortuary facilities feature multiple burials usually accompanied by large numbers of artifacts including shell gorgets, ceramic vessels, copper beads, perforated spatulate, and in one case, iron objects.

Rob Beck and I have argued elsewhere that Burke phase populations were organized into one or more chiefdoms. This argument is based on four distinct lines of evidence including patterns of earthen mound construction, mortuary practices, settlement patterns and sixteenth-century documentary evidence from the Juan Pardo expeditions. Though there is currently less evidence to support it, I suggest that Low phase populations were also organized into one or more chiefdom polities. It is hoped that continuing research into the Burke and Low phases will further clarify issues of regional political complexity.


To conclude, the Catawba valley cultural chronology now allows us to observe changes in settlement patterns within the region. It appears that the density of late Woodland sites is relatively low throughout the valley and there is also little evidence for early Mississippian or Early Lamar phases. The regional Burke and Cowans Ford ceramics exhibit stylistic affinities that are closer to the middle Lamar phases in Georgia than to Lamar style ceramics on the Wateree River in South Carolina or those of the Pee Dee phases in central North Carolina. The question of how this population evolved is certainly open; however, it is clear that the Catawba region represents the northern extent of Lamar phases from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The Berry site, rather than being an isolated example of a Lamar culture site in the western North Carolina Piedmont, is in fact, only one site within a large culturally complex and dynamic region.

Documentary evidence and the presence of sixteenth century Spanish artifacts lend support to the hypothesis that the armies of Hernando De Soto and Juan Pardo traveled from Cofitachequi into the Catawba valley. Our investigations of Berry and other sites in the upper Catawba and Yadkin River valleys will continue to evaluate the relationship of this region to the chiefdom of Cofitachequi and a closer analysis of the Catawba Valley Mississippians will be necessary to understand their relationship to more southerly Lamar peoples. Finally, we hope our continued research will shed light on the apparent demographic collapse that occurred throughout the region in the seventeenth century and on how the Catawba Valley Mississippian peoples may be related to the Historic Period Catawba Indians.

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