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Uncovering the past

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Archaeologists shine a light on the Catawba Nation

By Chris Sardelli

ROCK HILL – A crowd of more than 40 history buffs packed the auditorium at the Museum of York County recently hoping to learn more about recent discoveries about the old Catawba Indian Nation.

University of North Carolina archaeologists Drs. Brett Riggs and Stephen Davis transported the crowd of anxious explorers back to the days of the Old Catawba Indian Nation using artifacts they’ve uncovered.

The two have been excavating sites in both York and Lancaster counties for more than six years.

Since they began their field work in 2003, Riggs and Davis have been examining former Catawba Nation sites of the Nassaw and Weyapee from the 1750s, Old Town from the 1760s to 1770s and New Town from 1780 to 1820. Through their examination of these sites, the two archaeologists have been able to track the Indian tribe’s movements over hundreds of years.

“We do archaeology to answer questions. We wanted to learn the process through which the modern Catawba have come to exist,” Riggs said. “It’s very interesting to note the novel adaptations the Catawba brought to bear with the changes they faced. We asked, ‘What has enabled the survival of the modern Catawba nation?’”

Many of their most significant findings were made in the areas of Old Town and New Town, which was the heart of the Catawba Nation.

The two areas are located within one mile of each other in Lancaster County, mainly on a three-mile stretch between Twelve Mile Creek to the south and Macedonia Church to the north.

Through objects such as pottery shards, pieces of clothing, gun flints and musket parts, the archaeologists were able to determine that the Catawba Nation had a strong relationship with the English. This relationship provided the nation with plenty of tools and weapons, but also dragged the tribes into wars as well.

Through the use of metal detectors, their team discovered hundreds of metallic fragments that helped not only outline the borders of their towns, but also of their homes.

At the sites of those homes, Davis and Riggs discovered several cellar pits, which were the “basements” of the homes.

They made most of their discoveries, including glass beads, jewelry, shoe buckles, arrow points and brass kettles, in these cellar pits.

Their largest find, though, was 62,000 shards of handmade Catawba pottery.

Through all these clues, the team concluded that the Catawba Nation must have had a good deal of disposable income to buy the items, most likely earned from trading pottery.  

“There is no prediction more erroneous than the idea that the Catawba would eventually be extinct,” Riggs said. “They just kept rebounding.”

Davis said there have been many volunteers from both counties participating in the excavations.

One person who has been helping the archaeologists is Lancaster County historian Lindsay Pettus.

“He was very instrumental in us getting access to places in the county because he knows everyone,” Davis said. “He’s a remarkable individual.”

Looking toward their continued work on the project, Davis said the team has already applied for a research grant. He said this will help them to expand on their work, looking at the years 1750 through 1820 when the Catawba Nation began to transform from the traditional nation to its more modernistic structure.

If successful in obtaining the grant, both Davis and Riggs plan to do additional work in the Fort Mill and north Lancaster County areas later this summer.

“We’ve only scratched the surface,” Davis said.

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli  at csardelli@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 416-8416