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University archaeologist aids discovery of oldest European inland fort

By Stephanie Dilworth , Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 31, 2013

A group of archaeologists have discovered the ancient remains of the oldest known inland European fort in the interior of the U.S. — Fort San Juan — near Morganton, North Carolina.

Assistant Anthropology Prof. Robin Beck, assistant curator of North American Archaeology, is collaborating with fellow archaeologists David Moore of Warren Wilson College and Christopher Rodning of Tulane University to excavate the site.

Though Beck and his team began work around the site in 2004 with help from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, it was not until last month that remains of Fort San Juan were discovered. The fort was hidden beneath a mound of dirt that was built on top of the ruins as a result of the ancient mound-building culture in the Native American community of Joara from 800 to 1500 C.E.

Beck said he was excited to discover the fort, adding that these discoveries are what make his job worthwhile.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “It is the reason we do archaeology. In the moment that we realized we had found the fort after 20 years of looking for it, for all of us, there is this euphoria.”

The fort was built by Spanish captain Juan Pardo and men under his command in the Appalachian Mountains in 1567.

Joyce Marcus, Director of the University’s Museum of Anthropology and curator of Latin American Archaeology, wrote in an e-mail that Beck’s discovery is a significant archaeological finding.

“Our Museum and Department (of Anthropology) are filled with scholars who conduct fieldwork to obtain new and important data sets,” Marcus said. “As famous archaeologist, A. V. Kidder once said going on a dig was like deep-sea fishing — you don’t know whether you are going to come back with a little grouper or a great big marlin. Robin Beck caught a marlin.”

Among Beck’s findings is the defensive moat which once surrounded the fort, as well as several 16th-century Spanish artifacts including pottery, an iron clothing hook and iron nails and tacks.

Beck said he was disappointed that, due to lack of interest, he was unable to set up a field school in which students could have been given the opportunity to help excavate the site. However, he said he hopes that the discovery will boost interest in the program and possibly enable such a program to take root next summer.

“I hope to involve University of Michigan undergrads and talk to graduate students about the excavation of this fort,” Beck said.

He added that University students would have a hands-on experience if they participated in the potential field school next summer.

“If I get the field school next summer, students will be excavating inside the remains of this fort.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated in the opening sentence that this was the oldest European fort in the U.S. It is the oldest inland European fort in the U.S..


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