STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Student Archaeologists Dig at NC Plantation
POLLOCKSVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Through the gates and down a winding dirt road by the 1824 Foscue Plantation House near here, student archaeologists are digging squares and sifting sand to discover more about our colonial past.
One day in March brought one of the “eureka” moments to many hours of often boring work.
Under the watchful eye of East Carolina University archaeology and anthropology graduate student Amanda Keeney, Craven Community College student Wendy Bennett found a button and a broken piece of pottery with the watermark still visible.
The dig at the back of the 1,300-acre plantation fronting U.S. 17 about 10 miles east of New Bern and backing up to the Trent River is in its fifth year, said Caroline Parham-Ramsey, archaeology professor at CCC.
She is coordinating the eight-week project by 10 CCC archeology students, as she has previous digs with other groups, along with ECU archaeologist Charlie Ewen.
Digs six and seven years ago unearthed Civil War artifacts near the plantation house itself, but this one continues the search for earlier history tagged in the Foscue Family Papers 1753-1869 that are now in a UNC Chapel Hill Wilson Library collection.
Those papers documented life on the Foscue Plantation prior to the 1824 plantation house, which is now restored and open to the public on Thursdays. And the archaeological explorations by the ECU and CCC students have literally brought up the bones of some family members and unearthed artifacts that give a clearer picture of the people and the period.
“We’ve learned a lot,” said Jim Foscue, an eighth-generation Foscue and now owner of much of the site as he thanked Craven Community College President Catherine Chew for the project during her recent visit.
“This is a wonderful thing for the Foscue Plantation,” he said. “We knew there had to be a dwelling not too far from the burial vault.”
It is the house built in the mid-1700s, probably the overseer’s residence on the plantation, which at that time probably had 19 slaves and is documented as having as many as 48 slaves near the Civil War era.
Papers documented the vault, but Ewen’s $25,000 Geophysical Survey Systems Inc. ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment earlier pinpointed the place that Ewen said has already produced three masters’ thesis and lured a half dozen other students to become archeologists.
“Craven Community College hires one of my students to oversee the project,” Ewen said. “This gives them hands-on experience. It is good to do, so when they get into the business world they know what’s coming.”
Cynthia Bellacero, chairman of CCC’s Social Science and Humanities Department, said it is also great for her students. There is currently no other community college archaeology field school operating in the state.
During a 2010 project led by ECU grad student Melinda Seeman, the early 19th-century vault was excavated after GPR located it.
The historical record had indicated that the bodies of three people were in the vault — Simon Foscue Sr., Simon Foscue Jr., and his wife, Christiana “Kitty” Rhems Foscue. However, the excavation brought up a total of nine people, including one adult male, three adult females, a 3-year-old child and three preterm fetuses, two of which were likely twins, Seeman’s research showed.
Her work stated that with a lack of research on the Eastern North Carolina gentry population, analysis of the bones reveals a lot about their life beyond historical documents, including health, diet, disease and burial practices.
The GPR also showed signs of artifacts nearby. The ongoing digs, Keeney said, have identified a 20-by-30-meter house that stood at the site.
Ewen said the GPR “is helpful to make digging more effective, but it is not the magic machine you see on TV.”
The house’s center chimney, now piles of bricks with a tree stump through them among the 2-by-2-meter squares being unearthed a half-inch at a time, had what appears to be warming ovens on each side, said Parham-Ramsey.
“The brick would have been made by slaves right here as far as we know,” she said.
As they shovel, scrape and sift, students are finding iron nails, leading them to think the house was made of wood, and green bottle glass, and ceramics with a makers mark, said Keeney.
They carefully map each find on a grid that records where it was found and photograph both the artifact and its location because it is the last time to accurately put the object in its actual place and time.
“This has really been a rich experience for the students,” said Bellacero, “and a great partnership” with Foscue and ECU that also helps Keeney gather the information for her thesis and enriches the history of the period in eastern North Carolina.