Preservacation: Religious and Secular Symbols in Early Colonial Churches

Preservacation is a series of essays by Brad Hatch about the preservation related adventures, issues, and sites that he and Lauren have encountered on their travels.  This is #4 in the series.

____________________________________

By Brad Hatch

I have a fascination with early colonial architecture. This likely stems from my work in archaeology since so much of the earliest colonial architecture only exists in archaeological contexts. In Virginia, there are only a handful of standing structures that date before 1700, however I can think of numerous archaeological sites pre-dating the eighteenth century. This lack of seventeenth century buildings can be explained by the fact that most structures of that period were somewhat impermanent, i.e. they were wood and often of post-in-ground construction.

This should not be taken to mean that most Virginians were unable to afford masonry buildings, actually many planters were quite wealthy through the 1600s. Brick or stone construction simply was not in vogue at the time. There could have been several reasons for this, often the most cited is that Virginia planters wanted a quickly and cheaply constructed house so that they could get right to growing tobacco, and thus, making more money. These post-in-ground buildings, dubbed Virginia houses, remained popular up until the nineteenth century. However, by the mid eighteenth century, many large plantation holders began moving toward masonry construction for their houses in keeping with the new Georgian movement. Examples of these buildings include Stratford Hall, Kenmore, Salubria, and Mt. Airy.

If you want to see buildings earlier than these you have to look at places other than private residences. Government buildings fit this bill, but there are few of those that are original. Churches are what I am talking about. These were often the first and only buildings in a given area that were made of either stone or brick, mainly because the church was the only entity with enough money (that they didn’t want to invest in agriculture) and time to build in these materials.  Churches in colonial America not only fulfilled the spiritual needs of their parishioners, but acted as places for important business dealings, political meetings, and social interactions. They are deeply symbolic structures that carried many meanings for the people who used them in the colonial period. Over the past year I have had the opportunity to visit a few of these early colonial churches in Virginia and North Carolina and have been impressed by their degree of preservation and assorted layers of meaning.

Yeocomico Church in Westmoreland County, VA. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Yeocomico Church in Westmoreland County, VA. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

While Lauren and I were at Stratford Hall a few weeks ago I suggested we go see Yeocomico Church, the oldest in Westmoreland County. Yeocomico is located near Hague, which is actually quite a haul from Stratford through acres of farmland. The brick building that stands now was constructed in 1706, but it took the place of a wooden structure that, according to folklore, stood on the same spot and was built in 1655. Interestingly, a piece of this original church survives in the wicket door (a door within a door) at the entrance of the church, which is the only functioning original wicket door in North America.

Lauren in front of the wicket door at Yeocomico Church. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren in front of the wicket door at Yeocomico Church. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

There are several interesting architectural details on this church, but to address them all would take up way more space than anybody is willing to read. (You should definitely visit if you get the chance. Oh, and did I mention that Mary Ball, the mother of George Washington, attended this church in her youth?) The thing that struck me about this church, however, was the design on the brick porch above the entrance. The shape of a diamond, set off by glazed headers, stands out as you approach the entrance. I had seen this a few months before at St. Thomas Church in Bath, NC, built in 1734, and began to wonder about what it meant since it was seemingly not coincidental.

Yeocomico Church showing the boundary wall for the original churchyard.  Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Yeocomico Church showing the boundary wall for the original churchyard. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance to Yeocomico Church showing the diamond design over the porch and a triple arch in the bricks, possibly representative of the Holy Trinity.  Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance to Yeocomico Church showing the diamond design over the porch and a triple arch in the bricks, possibly representative of the Holy Trinity. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

St. Thomas Church in Bath, NC. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

St. Thomas Church in Bath, NC. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance of St. Thomas Church showing the diamond design over the door, which bears a strong resemblance to a crucifix.  Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The entrance of St. Thomas Church showing the diamond design over the door, which bears a strong resemblance to a crucifix. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

I did a little research into Anglican and Episcopal symbols and came up with a few ideas. The first thing that came to me without even researching was the symbol of a cross; even though it’s a diamond it bears a resemblance. With a little research I then came to the possibility of it representing the star of Bethlehem, which is similar in shape to the diamond and sits above the entry as the star shone above the manger, calling the faithful. The final meaning I could pull out of this symbol was its similarity to a vesica piscis, or fish bladder. This is a common symbol in the Episcopal faith and represents a fish, which is associated with Jesus. This one design that confronts you as you enter the church has many layered meanings and as I thought about it I tried to find meaning in the rest of the architecture and was astounded by what I saw (which is too much to list here), illustrating the thought that went in to constructing a church in the colonial period and the nuances of early American architecture.

As I mentioned above, churches also served as important places for social interaction. Part of this interaction comes from displaying power amongst peer groups. This was done in many ways, including wearing certain clothes to display wealth as well as having assigned seating. Often the more powerful members of the community had reserved pews that were closer to the pulpit, and symbolically closer to God, than the poorer members. Even though the Anglican Church did not participate in the practice of granting or selling indulgences many of the planter elite still sought to buy their way into heaven. Perhaps the best example of this is Christ Church Lancaster County, VA, which I had the opportunity to visit last summer.

Robert “King” Carter financed and oversaw the construction of this Georgian brick church in 1730. The symbolism in this building is very clear. While it does have a good deal of religious meaning, the aspects that display the power and wealth of Carter are overwhelming. First of all, it took an insane amount of money to build a brick structure in 1730. The fact that Carter built a church for the community showed that he had money to burn. The interior arrangement also speaks to his power and quest for control. His family’s personal pew is the closest to the pulpit and has a raised back. Not only does this represent his attempt to be closer to God (and possibly on a similar plane of power), but also shows how he wished to separate himself from people below his status. The history of this building and its design stands as a perfect example of how the social behaviors and relationships of colonial parishioners can be expressed in religious architecture and displayed by the people who use the buildings.

These are but two brief examples of the importance of churches in colonial Virginia. They interest me so much because they are such public places, and as such carry so many symbols and meanings, both religious and secular, that can still be interpreted by paying close attention. It is especially fun for me as an archaeologist to look at these structures because I am able to view large symbols on the landscape rather than small symbols in the earth like bits of broken pots. The age and unique architecture at these sites draws me in with promises of a glimpse at rare North American architectural styles, but the rich meaning behind all of the brick, glass, and wood keeps me coming back for more.

Post Script:

If anybody has any ideas or input on Anglican symbolism, particularly the meaning of the diamond design, please feel free to let me know. Especially if you have a different perspective on the meaning of the symbol I’m interested, since this has fascinated me for the past couple weeks.

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!