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Tuscarora focus of ECU archaeology site

(June 7, 1995)   —   From beneath the topsoil of a farm near Snow Hill, N.C., archaeologists from ECU are harvesting a bumper crop of information about North Carolina’s past not yet found in history books.
David Phelps, professor of archaeology in ECU’s Department of Anthropology, is leading a team of faculty and student researchers this summer in the excavation of Neoheroka Fort, site of the final battle of the Tuscarora War.
The Tuscarora War was fought in eastern North Carolina from 1711 to 1713. Contentnea Creek, a Neuse River tributary that meanders through parts of Wilson, Greene, Lenoir and Pitt Counties was a hotbed for the hostilities between the Tuscarora Indians and the colonists.
The Tuscaroras built Neoheroka beside the creek as a stronghold against colonist forces trying to drive them from their homeland. Those forces included American colonists and their allies—Cherokee, Yamasee and Catawba warriors, among others.
The final three-day battle took place March 20-22, 1713, and ended in bloody defeat for the Tuscarora. The fort was burned and the surviving Tuscarora fled or were taken as slaves.
Neoheroka, according to Phelps, is one of the most important historical sites in the eastern United States.
“This site represents the last battle that removed a people from their homeland and opened the inner part of North Carolina for colonial expansion,” said Phelps.
“It’s a good place to look at the interaction between Native Americans and colonials in a war situation, and gives us a look at the last moments of the existence of the Tuscarora culture in its native form. There are Tuscarora today, but their culture changed after this battle.”
Sponsored by ECU’s Institute for Historical and Cultural Research, work began at Neoheroka in 1990. The site serves as a field training program for the ECU Department of Anthropology.
The fort sits on land that is owned by George Mewborn Jr. and his family, and has been farmed for about a century. Field work at the Neoheroka site is done during the crop season, so the Mewborns exclude from the planting each year the area ECU plans to excavate.
“The Mewborns have for years been cognizant of the historic value of their land. They have been most cooperative and we really appreciate that,” Phelps said. “Ultimately, these collections of artifacts will carry the Mewborn name and will be an honor to the family.”
The fort was registered as an American Indian site in the 1950s and identified as the Neoheroka Fort in 1971.
Excavating Neoheroka is “like opening a door to the past,” Phelps said. “You push back a little earth and it’s Sunday morning, March 22, 1713.”
Phelps said the fort is “archaeologically intact,” providing researchers with a rare opportunity to study a site that was sealed at a moment in time.
“At most sites, artifacts are mixed and have to be sorted,” he said. “But here, we’re dealing with a closed site. There were no occupations after that battle, so everything just stopped that Sunday morning and it’s still there.”
The researchers are working with a battle description given by Col. James Moore, the Georgia Indian fighter who led the attack against Neoheroka, and with a map of the fort drawn after the battle, probably by someone in Moore’s forces. The original map is housed in the South Carolina Historical Society collection in Charleston.
ECU’s archaeology lab is a component of the university’s Institute for Historical and Cultur