Big Thoughts from a Tiny Piece of Pottery

Fort San Juan ExcavationI was interviewing Dr. David Moore, the Warren Wilson College archaeology professor who is leading the dig at the site of Fort San Juan, when one of his students uncovered a piece of Spanish pottery. In case you're wondering what Fort San Juan is, archaelogists found remains of a Spanish fort, which pre-dates the English settlement at Roanoke, making Fort San Juan one of the first settlements in the 'new world.' And it is located in Morganton, NC.

Dr. Moore's student was understandably excited upon uncovering this artifact. Dr. Moore was excited as well, even though he has probably seen and studied plenty of broken pottery shards in his career. 

He let me hold it, and as I turned it over and over, Dr. Moore pointed out the evidence showing that it was 16th century Spanish craftsmanship. If you brushed away the soil, you could clearly see the pottery was fired, a technology the Native Americans living in the area at the time had not invented yet. The design work on the pottery was also Spanish.

But as I examined it closely, my mind started to wander. I started asking questions, lots of questions.

I wondered what event happened more than 500 years ago, where I was standing and the students were digging, that resulted in the mug or pitcher being broken and creating the fragment I was holding.

Did somebody drop it? Or was it broken when Native Americans attacked the fort, built in their village, killed the Spanish soldiers and burned the fort to the ground?

And then there were bigger questions...

What if the fort had succeeded?

What if the Spanish had found the gold they were searching for? After all, gold was discovered near Charlotte in the early 1800s and it sparked a gold rush in the area. If the Spanish had found the gold they were seeking, they would have never allowed the English to move into the area. In that case, what is now known as the southeast United States would have developed very differently.

“You’re hooked,” said Moore, smiling, as I handed the piece of pottery back to him. “That’s part of what makes this field so much fun.” He continued, “Using your imagination, you visualize real-life situations out of what you know from the archaeological evidence before you in addition to what you know of the history of the time. That adds color and realism to the artifacts. It brings history to life and it can also help answer some questions.”

And so, as we left the river valley and the patch of farmland near Morganton, I turned and looked at the area one last time. And what Dr. Moore said was exactly what happened. I imagined a Native American village with children playing, fires burning for cooking food, and villagers performing all sorts of chores such as sewing, preparing food and tanning animal skins.

And then I imagined a fort in the middle of it, with the Spanish flag flying overhead and soldiers standing guard. It was strategically placed to show authority. And then as I turned away I wondered again what happened to it all.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

Related Resources:

  • Video: Digging For History
  • What's My Story: Archaeologist


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