Dig at Bath historic site reveals secrets of the past|ECU conducting study of 18th century cellar

Published 2:00 am Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lifestyles & Features Editor

BATH — Artifacts that haven’t seen the light of day for more than 200 years are being unearthed in an archeological dig at the Historic Bath State Historic Site.
Shards of pottery, animal bones and fragments of clay pipes and glass bottles have been uncovered near the Bonner House as part of a project led by Charles R. Ewen, a professor with the East Carolina University Department of Anthropology.
What is believed to be a merchants cellar is currently being explored by Ewen and about a dozen of his students. The project began in May and is expected to continue through June 24.
The cellar has actually been a site of study for several years. The cellar has been uncovered, studied and then filled in during previous visits to Bath, but students with the current project are digging deeper than before.
“We were doing a survey of the whole town and discovered a buried wall here,” Ewen said Monday morning. “We’ve got three of its corners uncovered and it measures about 15-by-15 feet. It’s brick-lined, and bricks were hard to come by then, so they probably had to make the bricks themselves.”
Ewen believes the site was originally a community-owned cellar, with several Bath merchants using it. Records indicate it was built around 1720 and was used until the 1780s. Ewen is attempting to determine if the cellar was filled in at that time.
The artifacts found in recent weeks are all dated prior to 1780, Ewen said.
“They tell us something about commerce and daily life at that time,” he said. The artifacts will be taken back to ECU to be cleaned and studied.
That is one of Deborah Glisson’s favorite chores.
“I like digging and finding little pieces from the past, but I really like the lab work — washing the artifacts, cleaning them up,” Glisson said. “I used to visit my aunt here in Bath when I was little, and anthropology and archaeology is all I ever wanted to do.”
The project has captured the attention of local residents, who drop by from time to time to check on its progress and view the unearthed artifacts. Far from being distracted by visitors, Ewen said he welcomes sightseers.
Also planned is a closer look at the cemetery adjacent to the historic Palmer-Marsh House. Few graves are marked, but there are indications several others are in the area. Ewen and his students intend to use ground-penetrating radar to see what secrets may be hidden just beneath the earth’s surface.
A similar project conducted by Ewen a few years ago at St. Thomas Episcopal Church revealed that the church yard is the final resting place for some of Bath’s earliest residents.
“We found graves about three feet from the church’s foundations,” Ewen said. “There are marked graves from the 1800s and later, but there are a whole lot of unmarked graves there, too.”
Historic Bath Site Manager Leigh Swain said she is fascinated by the excavation and visits the site regularly.
“The wonderful thing for us is that these groups of students and Dr. Ewen can fill in the gaps in the story,” Swain said. “It’s been a number of years that he’s brought students to Bath. This project they’re working on now is the third time there’s been activity on that site.”
Swain said that some artifacts uncovered may find their way back to Bath for public viewing.
“We can borrow some of the pieces to display here, perhaps at the Van De Veer House,” she said.