ECU Archaeology Students Dig Down 250 Years
By Jeannine Manning Hutson
BATH—Dr. Charles Ewen takes a small digging trowel and points to the somewhat differently shaded layers of soil. As he gets to the bottom of the 4-foot-6-inch excavation, he points to the brick remains of a 1740s-era cellar.
This is what Ewen and his students have been working on five weeks this summer – excavating another site in Bath, which has served as a historical classroom for Ewen for five years.
“Bath hasn’t changed since it was founded,” said Ewen, professor of anthropology and director of the ECU Archaeology Laboratories. “The 1717 map of Bath shows 71 lots. The question is which lots had actual houses here.”
To answer that question, for the past several years Ewen has taken his undergraduate and graduate students to Bath to perform “shovel tests” – every 20 feet, you dig a hole until you get down to sterile subsoil to see what you can find.
“We’ve done about two-thirds of Bath at this point,” Ewen said of the shovel tests and their mapping.
A European settlement near the Pamlico River in the 1690s laid the way for the founding of Bath in 1705, North Carolina’s first town. The first settlers were French Protestants from Virginia. By 1707, the town had a grist mill and the colony’s first shipyard; the next year, Bath consisted of 12 houses and about 50 people, according to the North Carolina Historic Sites website.
For five weeks this spring and early summer, Ewen’s group of 10 students worked on the site of a 1740s communal store house that is on an adjacent lot to the Bonner House. That house, built in 1830, still stands on the site of John Lawson’s house, built around 1705.
Ewen believes the storehouse was used until 1750 or 1760, and artifacts dating to the mid-18th century support his theory. “It was unusual to have a full brick cellar at that time; this is something special,” he said.
Lawson was one of the early residents of Bath. He was a naturalist, explorer and surveyor general for the Lords Proprietors and author of the first history of Carolina in 1709. He was killed in 1711 by Tuscarora Indians while exploring the Neuse River.
“In 2005, we started a town-wide survey,” he said. “A lot of development is on the way around Bath, but isn’t here yet in the town.”
Last year, Ewen received a seed grant from ECU’s Research and Graduate School to support graduate students working on the project for a year.
The graduate student assigned by Ewen to lead the dig under his supervision is second-year student N.J. Mullens. Originally from the West Virginia mountains, she was not happy when the mercury began to rise during their final days at the site, but she loves the thrill of not knowing what an archaeological dig, such as the one in Bath, will produce.
After several years as an elementary school teacher, Mullens decided she wanted a career change. She investigated her options and archaeology sounded perfect, she said.
“You get to be outside and get your hands dirty, but there is still academic work involved,” she said. “Plus it’s exciting. I love it when we find a lot of pieces (of broken ceramics) and they fit together.”
Fellow graduate student Paulette McFadden also came into archaeology as a second career. After 20 years of working behind a human resources desk in corporate America, she traded her business attire for jeans and T-shirt.
As a student just beginning her first year of the graduate program, McFadden had been mainly working in the lab cleaning artifacts with water and a toothbrush. She said getting to work at the dig site was exciting for her.
“Normally I get the artifacts in bags and don’t get to see the context in which they were found,” she said, while taking a break from plotting a map of the excavation site. As Mullens called out coordinates from the grid of string and the color variance of clay using the Munsell soil color chart, McFadden drew her map.
Ewen said the hands-on experience of working at a site is a must.
“With these field schools, the students get experience. The graduate students get the experience of supervising a project. And it’s hard not to love archaeology when it’s cool and there are no mosquitoes biting,” Ewen said as the morning temperature climbed toward 90 degrees after weeks of cool, dry weather.
As their project time was ending, Ewen and his students made plans to line the dig site with thick black plastic and then re-fill the soil until they come back next summer to continue their work.
“A lot of times when they were done with cellars, they used them as trash dumps,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t find more ceramics here next time.”
Found at the site during this dig were pieces of broken Staffordshire slipware, which Ewen described as an early 18th century type of utilitarian ware. The remains of the dish were found in the bottom of the excavation site covered with cow ribs. Found about two feet away were broken remains of a lead-glazed rust-colored earthenware utilitarian dish. Many pieces are the size of an adult’s hand or larger.
“We found about 100 bags of artifacts that will be washed at the lab,” Ewen said. “We also found remains of liquor bottles and wine bottle fragments.
“All were most likely from supplies brought into Bath from England. It was just cheaper for them to bring it over. There were no local potteries in this area in the early 19th century. Eastern North Carolina was so sparsely settled, not enough market for a pottery.”
Bath was North Carolina’s first port and exported pine, pitch to be used in boat making and turpentine to England.
In addition to the artifacts that Ewen and his students will clean, analyze and eventually return to Bath for their historical displays, ECU is creating audio and video podcasts explaining the archaeological dig process and the historical context of the materials found. Recently Donna Kain from the ECU Department of English was back in Bath to film Ewen and the students working. She and her colleague, Tom Shields, have been doing that during the five-week field school.
Ewen said that he envisions people being able to download the podcasts to listen as they walk along the streets of Bath. As they pass the Bonner House, they will hear who Joseph Bonner was and about the summer house he built in 1830 that still stands.
Kain said, “This is a wonderful opportunity to use the web to show these digs and for people to see how archaeology is done. It’s exciting to see.
“These are people’s back yards -- history in your own town.”