Adventures in the Field: Archaeology at Historic Bath, NC

Adventures in the Field: Archaeology at Historic Bath, NC is a series of posts about Lauren’s experiences as a TA at East Carolina University’s summer 2009 archaeology field school in Bath, NC.  This is post #1.


By Lauren McMillan

Week One: 5/20 – 5/22/2009

So, I was asked by Kaitlin, and bugged by Brad, to write a weekly entry on my experiences while excavating this summer, and just FYI, this will be a pretty long first post.  For those of you who don’t know, I’m a 2008  UMW Historic Preservation alumni and am currently working on my Masters in Anthropology with a concentration on Historical Archaeology at East Carolina University.  For the next five weeks I will be working as one of the two Teaching Assistants at ECU’s historical archaeology field school in Bath, NC under the direction of Dr. Charles Ewen.  I’d like to first give you a brief background on the town and the site before getting into the field work.

Bath Town, as it was once known, was settled by Europeans in the 1690s and later became North Carolina’s first town in 1705.  Bath was home to many important men and events in NC’s colonial history.  John Lawson, Bath’s founder and author of A New Voyage to Carolina (which is still in print), made his home in town.  Lawson became the first casualty in the Tuscarora Indian War (1711-1715), while on an exploration trip.  North Carolina’s most infamous figure, the pirate Blackbeard, made his home and married his fourteenth wife in Bath,  right before Virginia’s Spotswood chased him down and had him beheaded (one of many reasons NC still hates us – did you all know that North Carolina feels this great rivalry with Virginia?)  It is even said that Edward Teach (Blackbeard’s “real” name) was actually from Bath.  Bath was also home to the first port, shipyard and library in North Carolina, and can still claim the oldest church in the state, St. Thomas, built in 1734.

St. Thomas Church, the oldest church in North Carolina, constructed 1734. Photograph by Brad Hatch.

St. Thomas Church, the oldest church in North Carolina, constructed 1734. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Overall, Bath is an interesting place for all you history buffs and pres dorks like myself; there are a few state owned historic houses to tour, in addition to a beautiful view of the water.  To me, the most exciting things about Bath is that all of the streets and most of the lots are almost exactly the same as they were in the 18th century, as seen on the 1769 Sauthier map.  The town literally has no stop lights, just two corner flashing lights.  And for you archaeology nerds out there, Stan South dug a cellar the size of the one we are currently excavating in just three short days in 1960.  This is one of the sites that helped him create his mean ceramic dating formula and his site pattern types.

1769 Sauthier Map - Beaufort Community College

1769 Sauthier Map – Beaufort Community College

As one of the few ports in North Carolina, Bath became an important site of commercial activity in the 18th century.  We are lucky that many of the town records have survived, and we knew before we started digging two years ago that a communal merchant warehouse was located on the lot we are currently investigating; in fact, there are court records showing that two merchants were constantly fighting one another over space and merchandise.  I can easily imagine arguments breaking out over space in this building, since we just found a third corner this week, and now know that the building was 15’x15’; not a very big space for all the merchants in one of the few ports of entry in the state to share.

Site with happy field school students and intern house in the background. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Site with happy field school students and intern house in the background. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

While ECU and Dr. Ewen have had a long and happy relationship with Bath, this is only the third year at this particular site, which is currently called the Intern House, because of the building standing right on part of our cellar.  The past two years, the ’07 field season with ECU students and the ’08 season with Summer Ventures (a high school governor school program which lasts for about two weeks), have revealed a good portion of the mid 18th century cellar.  The ceramics are dating the site from about the 1720s (white salt-glazed stoneware) to the 1770s (pearlware), which corresponds to the historical documentation.  Of course, the majority of what has been found are boring ol’ bricks and mortar, but as Noel Hume says, “While bricks are not the most collectible of artifacts, they are among the most common relics of early American domesticity.”

Now onto the ’09 season; we have a total of 14 people out on the site this summer, six Anthropology undergraduates, two recent anthro graduates, one Public History graduate student, two anthro grad students, two grad teaching assistants and the professor. Our first week out in the field was a short one, just three days, but we were able to accomplish quite a bit.  We got all the backfill from last summer out, which was a lot! The cellar goes down about six feet from the top surface, and there was a lot of dirt down there.  When we were finally able to pull all the tarp off the site and see it in its full glory; I was very joyous.

We uncovered most of the north cellar wall and some of the east wall (isn’t it nice when buildings line up with the cardinal directions?)  Halfway through Friday we were finally able to open up two units from last year.  It was in one of these units (60N40E) that we found one of the most important pieces of this puzzle we call archaeology; the southwest corner!  This is the third corner uncovered, telling us that the building was 15’x15’.  This is interesting, because there was a law in place in the 18th century that within one year of purchasing land in Bath, a building of at least 15’x15’ had to be built; this was to prevent land speculation and to encourage immigration.  This corner was found at the very end of the day, right as we were about to pack up, as is always the case, so I know all the students are excited about starting up next week to see what else the dirt will reveal.

Well, that was about it for this week.  We should get a lot more done next week, even though it too is a short one.  Stay tuned to find out more about Bath, NC!