Bath’s history comes to light

Published 8:54 am Monday, June 25, 2007

By Staff
Teams continue to search old town
Special To The Daily News
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ewen said the hands-on experience of working at a site is a must for the students’ education.
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.
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 course earthenware utilitarian dish. Many of those pieces are the size of an adult’s hand or larger.
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 to 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.”