The Catawba Project is a long-term project of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology (RLA) that examines the evolution of native societies of the Carolina piedmont through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The project is geographically centered along the Catawba River within the boundary of the 1760-1840 reservation of the Catawba Nation, along Catawba River in York and Lancaster counties, South Carolina. Begun in 2001 by R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr. and Brett H. Riggs, the Catawba Project has excavated numerous Catawba settlements dating between 1700 and 1820, as well as other earlier and later sites.
When explorers and traders from Jamestown and Charleston first entered the middle Catawba-Wateree valley in the late 1600s, they encountered a large native population comprised of Sugerees, Esaws, Kadapaus, and others. This diverse community soon became known to the English as the Catawba Nation.  During the first half of the 1700s, as European-introduced diseases, Iroquois raiding, and Indian-Colonial wars took their toll on native peoples throughout both Carolina colonies, more than 20 neighboring tribes sought refuge among the Catawba and established several towns. In 1759, a smallpox epidemic devastated the entire native community and the survivors, now all known as Catawba, resettled in two towns located several miles downriver.  After this time, the distinct histories of the Catawba and the disparate groups who settled among them merge to form a single history of the modern Catawba Nation.
The Catawba Nation in “An Accurate Map of North and South Carolina With Their Indian Frontiers” by Henry Mouzon and others, 1775. 
Map of the project area.
Re-analysis of documentary sources and re-evaluation of Catawba settlement patterns have led researchers to a series of settlements occupied sequentially between 1750 and 1820, a critical period of group coalescence that gave rise to the modern Catawba Nation.  Investigations at Nassaw, Weyapee, and Charraw Towns (c. 1750-1759), Old Town (c. 1763-1790), the Nisbet site (c. 1763-1780), Ayers Town (c. 1781-1800), New Town (c. 1790-1820), and the Bowers site (c. 1800-1820) provide glimpses into the transformations of Catawba households and material culture during the late Colonial and Federal periods.

Read more about the sites, our excavations, and findings below.

Research Questions

Some of the research questions that have been addressed by the Catawba Project include:

• What was the configuration of native settlement along the middle Catawba River after European contact, and how did it change over the course of the eighteenth century?

•  What is the material evidence for the processes of coalescence and ethnogenesis that led to the emergence of the Catawba Nation in the early eighteenth century?

• How did Catawbas respond to the smallpox epidemic of 1759, perhaps the most pivotal event in Catawba history, and what impact did that event have on Catawba sociopolitical structure and material culture?

Pottery from Ayers Town.
• How did the Catawba Nation accommodate and adapt to extreme and rapid changes in the cultural and sociopolitical landscapes during the latter half of the eighteenth century?

• What impact did the development of the Catawba land-leasing system have on Catawba households and their overall economies?

• How and why did the Catawba pottery-making tradition change during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?

Excavations at Old Town, 2009.

Catawba Sites

Learn more about the investigations at Nassaw, Weyapee, and Charraw Towns (c. 1750-1759), Old Town (c. 1763-1790), the Nisbet site (c. 1763-1780), Ayers Town (c. 1781-1800), New Town (c. 1790-1820), and the Bowers site (c. 1800-1820).

Continuing a Legacy in Student Training

Supported by funding from the National Geographic Society, Kanawha Development LLC, South Carolina Department of Transportation, Duke Energy, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Catawba Project continues the RLA’s legacy in training students in archaeological field techniques.

Check out pictures of the excavation teams (supervisors, field school students, and other crew members) between 2003 and 2017. Are you in one of these photographs?

Field crew at Old Town and the Nisbet site, 2014.

For More Information…

For inquiries about the Catawba Project, please contact Dr. Steve Davis.

Several 3D models of important artifacts from the Catawba Project excavations have been created by RLA students and staff. Take a look for yourself! These and many other 3D models can be viewed on the RLA’s Sketchfab page.

The more significant results of this research have been extensively reported in several doctoral dissertations and more than a dozen research reports and journal articles, among other publications. To read more about the project, check out the Selected Bibliography.