The city of Morganton is known to many as a place where archaeological history was made.

Dr. David Moore, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Warren Wilson College, and his fellow researchers discovered remains at what is now called the Berry Site in Morganton of a 16th century Spanish settlement called Fort San Juan, believed to be the first inland European settlement in the U.S., dating back to 1567, according to a previous News Herald article. The site also is the location of the ancient Native American town of Joara.

“The Berry Site, named after the family who has so generously allowed excavations and research to happen on their property for the last three decades, attracts history enthusiasts from across the world,” according to the Exploring Joara Foundation, an organization that raises funds for ongoing research at the site. “EJF is honored to partner with the research team, the Berry family, and many community partners who believe that the encounter between Juan Pardo and the natives of Joara forever changed the trajectory of our nation’s history.”

Capt. Juan Pardo was the leader of a Spanish expedition from Santa Elena, now present-day Parris Island, South Carolina, according to a history provided by EJF. Pardo and the men under his command were on a mission to claim lands in the southeastern U.S. for Spain and establish an overland route to Mexico. Archaeologists believe that local Catawba Indians destroyed Fort San Juan and killed most of the members of the Spanish expedition just 16 months after they arrived.

“If the fort had continued, it is possible that the Spanish, rather than the English, would have colonized the area,” Moore said in a previous interview for the History Museum of Burke County.

Moore and his team offer an annual “Field School” and “Public Dig Days,” in which members of the community can receive some basic training and help excavate the site, which covers nearly 12 acres. EJF also hosts an annual “Field Day,” in which visitors can come and hear presentations from the archaeologists on the findings at the site of the past year.

“Helping our research is only one reason we welcome the public,” Moore said. “Very simply, the added labor helps us complete more excavation faster. More importantly though, we want to give people the chance to actually experience archaeology first hand, to learn more about our local history and to feel the excitement of helping discover that history.”

People interested in learning more about the site and archaeology also have the opportunity to help process the items found there at periodic “Lab Nights” EJF holds at its Wall Center for Archaeological Research at 220 New St. in Morganton.

“There are always new discoveries that continue to add new pieces of information to our knowledge about the fort,” Moore said. “This summer, we plan to unveil the first artist's illustration of the Spanish compound, including the fort and the five buildings where the soldiers lived.”

Another way to connect with the history of Fort San Juan and Joara is to visit the Living History Center at Catawba Meadows Park, a joint project of EJF and the city of Morganton.

“The Living History Center is an interactive interpretive center which is located on the site of a significant 16th century Catawba Indian town,” EJF reports on its website, “Excavations yielded information that allowed EJF to accurately reconstruct 16th century buildings at the Catawba Meadows site.”

EJF holds periodic events in which visitors can explore the center and experience what it was like to live hundreds of years ago.

“The Living History Village is open at all times that the park is open,” Moore said. “We are looking for volunteers to become docents to help interpret the village to visitors on selected public days.”

EJF also conducts outreach programs at local schools to share information about what they’re doing and teach students about archaeology and history.

Moore said the Exploring Joara Foundation will welcome anyone who would like to get involved with the Berry Site through a variety of volunteer opportunities, or by making a donation to ensure this aspect of local history is preserved and celebrated.

“This is such a unique opportunity to experience the past,” Moore said. “It is rare that an internationally significant archaeological site is so open to public participation. We welcome folks to our programs and are grateful for the financial support that we receive from the community.”

The organization encourages people who would like to know more about the discoveries at the Berry Site or plan a visit to contact them at 828-439-2463 or visit

Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at

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