Trowel Blazers: Sauratown Woman

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Trowel Blazers: Sauratown Woman
Mary Beth Fitts, Assistant State Archaeologist
Courtney Page, Staff Archaeologist/OSARC
Emily McDowell, Assistant State Archaeologist/OSARC

In honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the OSA is celebrating exceptional women who have impacted NC archaeology. These four women span time, culture, and space, but have all left their mark on North Carolina and the field of archaeology in unique ways.

Sauratown Woman, or “Sara,” was discovered by a teenage boy in Stokes County in 1972. Forensic analysis estimated she was between 18 and 21 years old, and she was buried with a multitude of artifacts suggesting a high status in her matrilineal society, including a brass gorget (pendant), necklace and bracelet made of the center of whelk shells, clothing adorned with hundreds of glass trade beads and brass bells, a silver spoon, two pairs of scissors, and other brass ornaments.

Sara lived in a village near the confluence of the Dan River and Town Fork Creek, known to archaeologists as the Upper Sauratown site. Between 1972 and 1983, the UNC-Chapel Hill Research Laboratories of Archaeology (RLA) excavated a portion of this site. The Saura Indians lived in this village from about 1670 to 1710. They built circular houses with pliable sapling posts buried in the ground and pulled together to create domed frames, which were covered with bark, deerskin, or thatch. They protected their village by enclosing it with a palisade of closely spaced posts. In gardens next to their houses and the fertile bottomlands of the Dan River, the Saura Indians grew corn, beans, squash, and peaches. They hunted wild animals, primarily white-tailed deer, and traded deerskins, which were sought-after by European traders. In this way, Sara and her neighbors obtained glass beads and copper ornaments like those with which she was buried. Although they had limited interactions with Europeans, they were not immune to their diseases and were also increasingly threatened by enemy raids. After 1710, the Saura left their village on the Dan River and established a new one in South Carolina; many joined the Catawba Nation after 1737.

Three hundred years later, Sara’s discovery fostered interdisciplinary collaboration to tell her story and that of her people. The RLA and OSA were responsible for interpreting the results of archaeological work. A Lumbee woman served as the model for photos that were sent to New York for the recreation of Sara’s body. A facial reconstruction was created by a forensic artist in Raleigh. The style of her clothing was extrapolated through historical research and a company in Wyoming fashioned brain-tanned deerskin for her dress, sewn together with sinew. A goldsmithing couple in Wilson volunteered to construct the brass ornaments. NC Museum of History staff designed the columella shell beads for her necklace and bracelet. This collaboration resulted in a bronze statue on the front steps of the Museum, as well as a full-body replica of Sara accompanied by a narrative of her people’s history in the Story of North Carolina exhibit.

You can visit Sara at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh, NC to learn more about her and her people! Click here for your own copy of Sara's 2019 NC Archaeology Month poster!


-Johnson, Maria C.
1994 Sauratown Woman Leaves Clues to History. Greensboro News & Record, August 6, 1994., accessed September 10, 2019.
-Ward, Trawick H., and Davis R. P. Stephen Jr.
1993 Indian Communities on the North Carolina Piedmont A.D. 1000 to 1700. Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
-Eastman, Jane
1999 The Sara and Dan River peoples: Siouan communities in North Carolina's interior Piedmont from A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1700. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.