What’s My Story: Archaeologist

David Moore

In middle school, David Moore read about mysterious giant stone heads on Easter Island and knew he wanted to have adventures with artifacts. Today, Moore practices archaeology with his students at Warren Wilson College as the lead researcher on the Berry Site where the Spanish explorers lost their claim on the Carolinas in a battle with the Cherokee.

Archaeology: The study of human behavior in the past, primarily through the careful recovery, dating, and analysis of the material culture and environmental clues.

Easter IslandWhen did you discover you wanted to be an archaeologist?
I read Aku Aku: Secrets of Easter Island by Thor Heyerdahl in middle school. Then, I read his Kon-Tiki about sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a hand-built raft. These were stories of romantic adventure with charismatic figures. Once you read about that, how can you ever forget it? 

What did you study in school?
I had this sense graduating from high school that I wanted to study archaeology but I never took any classes in college. There were too many other things going on and I got interested in teaching history. I graduated with a degree in history and sociology. Then my wife got a job in Chapel Hill and I arrived there unemployed. Eventually, I was able to get a job with the NC Employment Security Commission to pay the bills. Then one day, I stopped at Northgate Mall where the NC Division of Archives and History had a mobile museum parked in the parking lot. It contained a fabulous exhibition about archaeology and that reminded me that I still loved archaeology. I wrote to the Museum of History and asked them point blank “How do you get a job in archaeology?” Some kind soul took the time to write back to me. Whoever it was noticed I lived in Chapel Hill and told me to get in touch with Dr. Joffre Coe.

To make a very long story short, Dr. Coe ended up offering me a summer job at the Hardaway Site. At the time, no one had worked there since the 1950s. Dr. Coe was opening it up again and I got to be in that first crew. The Hardaway site dates back to 10,000 years and was occupied by Paleo-Indians, Archaic, and Woodland people.

Where did your career take you?
ExcavationI applied to graduate school to work with Dr. Coe at UNC and got accepted in the fall of 1976. I spent three summers at Hardaway. In the summer of 1978, I worked on a late 15th century Cherokee site on the campus of Warren Wilson College. I did that for a couple of summers while finishing my master’s degree. Then I took a job as an archaeologist with the Western Office of the NC Division of Archives and History in the NC Department of Cultural Resources. I liked it a lot and stayed a couple of years. But in 1986, I went back to UNC to get a Ph.D. That’s when I began working on the Berry site in the upper Catawba River Valley. My research goal was to find out what was happening in that area at the end of the Mississippian Culture, from 1300-1500.  

What do you like about your job today?
Solving mysteries. The work I did during my Ph.D. took me all over the upper Catawba River Valley. There were over 3000 sites but only a handful of large sites that were good candidates for my particular research. The Berry site was one of the best and ultimately we have determined that the Berry site is the Native American town of Joara, the location of the first of the forts that Spanish Explorer Juan de Pardo described in the chronicle of his expeditions into the northern limits of “La Florida” in 1556-1568. Fort San Juan became the first European settlement in the interior of the United States.

When we discovered the broken bits of Spanish olive jars, the lead shot, the very distinctive wrought iron nails, and the blue shard of the Spanish medicine or salve jar, we knew there was a good chance we were near the fort. It wasn’t until this summer, however, that we found the smoking gun—the moat the Spanish dug to surround their fort. That was undeniable evidence that we had located Fort San Juan.

- By Lucy Laffitte

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