Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Digging the 18th Century...uncovering Edenton's past

1767 Chowan County Courthouse and the Green on which the
original 1718 Courthouse stood (photo by the author)
It may not be Indiana Jones territory, no Ark of the Covenant, no Holy Grail, no marauding Nazis, no slithering snakes (well maybe the odd snake or two,) but my town of Edenton, North Carolina was the scene last week of an archaeological dig, nonetheless. The quiet streets and pathways, dripping with crape myrtles and history, are inroads into the early years of American life. The casual tourist, reading the many historical markers and admiring the dozens of beautiful homes and buildings in continual use since the 18th and 19th centuries, is unaware of what might be hiding beneath the surface. It could be the surface of a tiny, inconsequential-looking cottage, covered over by asbestos shingles or it could be the surface of the lush, green expanse on which they tread between the majestic brick Courthouse, constructed in 1767, and the water’s edge where two 18th century cannon stand guard over Edenton Bay, a bay that merges into the Albemarle Sound which, itself, leads all the way to the Outer Banks and to the seas of the Atlantic Ocean. Edenton is in an area known as the Inner Banks and was, once, an important port of entry for merchants sailing from the Old World to customers in the New.

Lane House, 1718, (photo by Harvey Harrison -
 Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Wikimedia Commons)
The little, old (very old, indeed) cottage of which I refer, resides on the eastside of town, used for years as a rental house. Its tin-roofed, asbestos-shingled exterior belied a historical treasure unknown to all until its owners, Steve and Linda Lane, ordered some renovation work be done to improve it for the next potential renter. My friend and neighbor Wayne Griffin, owner of Old Edenton Co., was the first to discover the modest home’s hidden secret. Pulling away cheap cherry paneling, he found hand-hewn wooden beams pegged together in ways not seen since the early centuries of this country. He knew, immediately, there was more to the house than met the eye. Experts were brought in and the upshot of it was the house was thought to be built around 1718 making it not only the oldest standing structure in the town, but in all of the state of North Carolina. Ironically, it was built in the same timeframe as Edenton’s original courthouse building.

The beautiful, 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, with its commanding view of Edenton Bay, is still in use and open for visitors. What many do not know is, although it is very old, it is not the county’s first courthouse. The first, built in 1718 and in use for fifty years, sat on the green just across the street from its newer version. The original building was in no way similar to the grand structure that replaced it. Covered in clapboards, its windows not glazed with glass for some time, it was rather ignobly described in 1729 by visiting William Byrd II: “Justice herself is but indifferently Lodged, the Court-House having much the Air of a Common Tobacco-House.”
Old Postcard of "New," 1767 Courthouse, bricks painted white

Beginning July 28, 2014, a group of archaeologists from New South Associates armed with a GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar,) surveyed the green and discovered a likely area for the foundation of that original building. For several days, they meticulously dug up the sod and set it aside, retrieving brick fragments as well as 18th century glass and nails that point to the probable site of Edenton’s first house of justice. Their initial work completed, the archaeologists replaced the sod, returning the green to normal, a place on which people walk, every day, unaware of the history beneath their feet.

Who knows what historical treasures might be sleeping just below the surface of the ground on which we walk or, for that matter, beneath the façade of another little, shingled rental house?
The author's granddaughters on 18th century cannon, Edenton
(photo by their dad, John Sutton)

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


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