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Mississippian Chiefdoms and the Spanish Frontier:

An overview of recent excavations at the Berry Site

by Megan S. Best & Christopher B. Rodning

This paper reviews recent excavations at the Berry site, located on a floodplain along Upper Creek, a tributary of the Catawba River in the Western Piedmont region of North Carolina Figure 2. The site is roughly halfway between the point where this stream flows out of the Appalachian Mountains and into the upper Catawba River (Beck and Moore 2002). It is positioned along native routes of travel and trade that connected this Mississippian town to polities situated in the Yadkin River Valley in northwestern North Carolina, and to native communities in southwestern Virginia (Beck and Moore 2002; Meyers 2002; Moore 2002). Participation in regional networks of interaction and exchange may have been one of the driving forces in the emergence of the Berry site as the center of a chiefdom, situated at a cultural frontier between Mississippian societies to the southwest and Siouan village societies to the east and northeast (Moore 2002:187-188). David Moore and Rob Beck have demonstrated that this site represents the sixteenth-century native town of Joara, that it was the center of a regional polity led by a chief of that same name, and that it was one of the largest sixteenth-century native towns in all of western North Carolina (Beck and Moore 2002; Booker, Hudson, and Rankin 1992; Levy, May, and Moore 1990; Moore 2002; Ward and Davis 1999:262-263). This site is also the location of Fort San Juan, and the related Spanish frontier town of Cuenca, built under the direction of Juan Pardo (Beck 1997; Beck and Moore 2002; Hudson 1990:83-91, 1997:185-189; Moore 2002). Fort San Juan was built in 1567 and was abandoned in 1568, when several forts at the northern edge of Spanish Florida were overrun (Moore 2002:29). The native town of Joara was still occupied in the early seventeenth century (Moore 2002:30).

Surface surveys have shown that the Berry site is 4.5 hectares in size Figure 3. Near the northern end of the site is a remnant of an earthen mound that is now visible only as a slight rise in the field. This platform mound once stood twelve feet tall.

Excavations from 2001 to 2003 have concentrated on an area of some 0.5 hectares adjacent to the mound remnant, near the northern end of the site, and they have targeted magnetic anomalies detected by gradiometer surveys in 1997 and 2002 Figure 4. Four of these anomalies correspond to burnt structures, and several others correspond to large pit features. These four structures are arranged in an apparent arc around an area that is thought to be a plaza. These structures display aboriginal architectural designs and materials. They are roughly eight meters square, placing them near the high end of the size range of Mississippian houses in the southern Appalachians. Entryways to structures 2 and 4 have not yet been identified, but doorways to structures 1 and 3 both open towards the plaza, which may cover as much as 200 square meters. Several postholes and pit features are present in the plaza and in the area around the structures themselves. The rest of this paper reviews recent excavations in this part of the site. We first review excavations near the edge of the mound itself. We then briefly describe structures 4, 3, and 1, moving from south to north. We then describe excavations near Structure 2, concentrating on pit features present in the area south of this structure. Our paper concludes by outlining plans for further study of interactions between the native chiefdom centered at the Berry site and the Spanish colonists who lived there.

Excavations in 2003 near the southwestern edge of the mound have aligned our current grid system, which parallels the creek and the road at the edge of the field, with the 1986 grid, which was oriented towards magnetic north Figure 5. Excavation squares here uncovered the top of a bilobed pit, the top of a burial, and a double row of postholes that may represent part of a structure. Stratigraphic profiles were exposed in this area of the site so that Sarah Sherwood could collect soil samples for microstratigraphic analyses Figure 6.

Some of these strata may represent intact mound stages, or buried A horizons that represent the ground surface on and near the mound when the mound was in use Figure 7. Some of the upper levels of excavation squares in this area of the site may be redeposited mound fill. The mound has been greatly altered by plowing and bulldozing during the twentieth century, activities that may have spread mound deposits out past the edges of the actual sixteenth-century mound.

We uncovered one edge of Structure 4, near the northern side of the mound, in 2002 Figure 8. This structure is the southernmost of the four burnt buildings in this area of the site. Interestingly, the burnt remnants of Structure 4 are covered by mound fill. The last stage of the mound may have been built after this structure was burned and abandoned. Alternatively, plowing and erosion may have partially covered Structure 4 with redeposited mound fill. Further analysis of soil samples from this part of the site, and further excavations near the edge of the mound, will help clarify the chronological relationship between the mound and this structure.

We stripped plow zone deposits above Structure 3 in 2003 Figure 9. Abundant amounts of native pottery, chipped stone projectile points, soapstone artifacts, one whole lead shot, and other cultural material were recovered while sifting plow zone through ¼-inch mesh screens, but we have not yet dug into this matrix of intact architectural debris Figure 10. The structure, which is square with rounded corners in shape, is 7.9 by 7.65 meters, or roughly 60 square meters in area. A concentration of daub near the center of Structure 3 may represent the remnants of a daubed smoke hole from the collapsed roof. Several burnt timbers are present, as are sections of several burnt wall posts, still in place in the ground. A strip of gray fill surrounds the structure, probably representing material placed between the walls and the edge of the basin in which the structure was built. An entryway is present at the southwestern corner of Structure 3. Large postholes south of Structure 3 may represent part of a palisade.

Structure 1 is ten meters north of Structure 3 Figure 11. A trench into the burnt remnants of Structure 1, shown in this slide, has uncovered remarkably well-preserved wooden timbers and other material culture lying on the floor of a structure that may have housed Spanish soldiers. Here we offer some general comments about structures 1 and 3.

These structures are similar to each other in their architectural design and dimensions Figure 12. Both structures, which are square with rounded corners, are built in the same architectural style as native houses at other late prehistoric and protohistoric settlements in the southern Appalachians, although they are larger than most dwellings from this period (Dickens 1976:32-46, 88-89, 100; Hally 1994:153-156; Keel 1976:218; Lewis, Lewis, and Sullivan 1995:71-75, 471-476, 500-504, 527-530). The entryways to both structures opened towards the plaza. This shared alignment of structures 1 and 3, and the arrangement of structures 1, 2, 3, and 4 around this plaza, leads us to conclude that these structures and the plaza are part of a single compound.

All four structures were burned down, perhaps during the same event. This area of the site may have been abandoned after these structures burned, as there are no signs that the burnt remnants of these buildings were disturbed by reconstruction or other later cultural activities.

Figure 13 Structure 2 is roughly ten meters west of Structure 1, and several pit features and postholes are present in the plaza south of Structure 2 Figure 14. These circular and bilobed features range from one to three meters in length and width. European artifacts, related to the Spanish presence at Fort San Juan, have been found in these features, including several brass artifacts Figure 15. Abundant amounts of Mississippi-period Burke-series pottery have also been found in these features, such as the complicated stamped and incised rimsherds shown here Figure 16.

One of these pits is Feature 23, which was excavated in 2002 Figure 17. This feature was three meters long and 1.5 to 2 meters wide. The uppermost layer of Feature 23 was a dark, organically rich deposit with abundant amounts of charcoal, animal bone, and aboriginal ceramics. This uppermost deposit covered both the northern and southern lobes of Feature 23. Different levels of gray fill-containing ash, charcoal, and artifacts-were present in the northern and southern lobes of Feature 23 under the dark layer that covered the top of both lobes Figure 18. Sherds and pebbles were embedded in subsoil at the bottom of the southern lobe Figure 19. The northern lobe, which was oblong rather than circular, was wider and deeper than the southern lobe. The circular southern lobe postdates the northern lobe. The top of another pit was visible at the bottom of the northern lobe. Waterscreening the contents of Feature 23 has yielded local Burke-series pottery, as well as some non-local ceramics, lithic debitage, pieces of daub and unfired clay, shell and burnt animal bone, three opaque white glass beads, and several scrap pieces of brass.

Feature 25, which resembles Feature 23 in its bilobed shape, was excavated in 2003 Figure 20. This feature was 2.5 meters long and 1.5 to 2 meters wide. The southern, and more circular, lobe of Feature 25 intruded its more oblong northern lobe. The dark, organically rich deposit at the top of Feature 25 contained abundant amounts of charcoal, animal bone, aboriginal ceramics, soapstone artifacts and other lithic material Figure 21. Different series of deposits were present in the northern and southern lobes of Feature 25, underneath the top layer covering the entire feature. One rolled brass bead, one brass lacing tip, and an iron fragment were found in lower levels of the feature. Pebbles and sherds were embedded in the subsoil at the base of the southern lobe of Feature 25, and a charred concentration of corncobs and charcoal intruded this pit at its southeastern edge Figure 22. This concentration of charred material was removed as a block. It may represent debris placed in a posthole after the post was taken out of the ground or may have been used as a smoke-pit to keep insects away. In contrast to Feature 23, there was no sign of a burial or any other pit at the base of Feature 25 Figure 23.

Two meters west of Feature 25 was a circular pit designated Feature 38 Figure 24. This pit was partially excavated in 2003, but we did not finish excavating Feature 38 due to time constraints. We did excavate several distinct fill levels in one half of this feature Figure 25, enough to determine that Feature 38 is actually a relatively shallow pit on top of a deeper and narrower pit. The uppermost layer of Feature 38 is a dark deposit similar to those seen at the tops of features 23 and 25, with abundant amounts of charcoal, animal bone, and daub. Potsherds from Feature 38 represent local Burke-series pottery as well as non-local ceramics.

Immediately adjacent to the southwestern corner of Structure 2, we have uncovered several more features Figure 26. Although these features have not yet been excavated, their top layers appear to be rich in cultural material. Interestingly, features 44 and 46 seem to overlap, forming a shape similar to the bilobed features we have seen elsewhere. Another circular pit, Feature 47, is intruded by the burnt remnants of Structure 2, indicating that the structure itself may postdate this pit feature.

Further excavations will help clarify the functions of these pit features, the origins of the fill and the artifacts dumped in them, and the relationships between the pits and structures in this part of the site.

The functions of these pits are still unknown. Some of them may have been borrow pits, dug to collect earth needed in building and renovating structures and fortifications that were part of Fort San Juan or that were part of the native town. They may have been daub-processing facilities. They may have been storage pits, perhaps for Spaniards to store supplies out of sight, if there was any need to hide them from native people or from Spanish soldiers themselves. The events during which these pit features were filled may or may not have been related to the purposes these pits served when they were open. The richness of aboriginal ceramic and lithic artifacts, charred plant material, and burnt animal bone in the uppermost deposits of these pit features suggests that they may have been topped off with debris that was discarded after feasts or other such events, or with debris that accumulated as people cleaned up midden deposits that had formed in and around structures. European artifacts such as brass beads and lacing tips, scrap pieces of brass, and glass beads are present in these features. Spaniards living at or visiting the Berry site therefore may have participated in the events in which these pit features were filled. Written accounts of the Pardo expedition do describe events held at the town of Joara that were attended by leaders from several native towns. Such events may have included feasts that generated the kinds of material and the kinds of deposits that we have seen in pit features in the area near the mound at the Berry site. Alternatively, these pits may have been filled in after Fort San Juan was abandoned. If the structures north of the mound at the Berry site had housed Spanish soldiers, native people may have buried the remnants of these structures, symbolically if not literally, after the buildings had burned down, and some or all of the pit features in the plaza associated with these structures may have also been filled in at that time. This speculative scenario is consistent with the fact that these burnt buildings do not seem to have been disturbed by reconstruction, or by other activities that took place in this area of the site after the structures were abandoned. Furthermore, it is also consistent with the fact that the uppermost deposits in several nearby pit features are very similar to each other, perhaps because these deposits consist of debris generated during the same event or the same type of event. Excavations from 2001 to 2003 have only begun to uncover structures and pit features that form a compound related to the sixteenth-century Spanish settlement at the Berry site Figure 27. Excavations of the plaza north of the mound, and several large pit features and postholes present in this area of the site, will demand great effort due to the size of the plaza and the dimensions of the features themselves. Further study of mound stratigraphy is also needed to assess relationships between mound stages and the pits and structures beside or under the mound. Events during which these structures were burned and abandoned, and perhaps during which the last mound stage was added, may have marked both the end of the Spanish settlement at Fort San Juan and a beginning of a new era in the history of the Mississippian town that outlasted it. Excavations in 2004 and 2005 will continue to explore the spatial layout of the sixteenth-century Spanish compound at the northern end of the Berry site Figure 28. We will follow a line of postholes near Structure 3 that may represent a palisade, which we would expect to have been built at Spanish frontier settlements such as Fort San Juan. We will continue to strip plow zone deposits in the plaza south of Structure 2 and to excavate pit features and postholes uncovered in this area, in the interest of learning more about the spatial and chronological relationships between pits and structures Figure 29. Were these pits dug and filled in by Spanish soldiers? Or were they dug and filled in by native people sometime after they sacked the Spanish fort? Did the Spanish settlement here displace native structures and activity areas, or was it built at the edge of the native town? Was this part of the Berry site abandoned after Fort San Juan and the Spaniards were gone, or was it reclaimed as part of the aboriginal town during the late sixteenth century? Continuing artifact analyses and further fieldwork will help resolve these and other issues related to interactions between Spanish colonists and Mississippian chiefdoms in the upper Catawba Valley of western North Carolina Figure 30.

  In the Swannanoa Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains