The pig bones and broken dishes gave it away.
As construction workers dug a trench to replace a stormwater pipe at UNC’s Vance Hall, they unearthed stuff they usually don’t find. They stopped digging and archaeologists Brett Riggs and Stephen Davis started investigating.
For several days between November 14, 2011, and Thanksgiving, students working with Riggs and Davis used small tools to scrape dirt into buckets to reveal the past. Grad student David Cranford scraped loose a tooth, put it up to his lips, and made a funny face. “Pig incisor,” Riggs says. “We’ve found a lot of pig bones.” Another grad student, Mary Beth Fitts, found fragments of kitchen dishes. Some were locally made. Others had been made in England. She also found cellophane wrappers. That was odd. Clearly the wrappers didn’t date back two hundred years. They kept digging.
As the evidence piled up—glass, bricks, and more bones and dishes—Riggs and Davis realized they had probably uncovered a shallow cellar from the 1790s that had been part of a detached kitchen for a private residence.
On the other side of the excavation the students found a canal encased in large stones. Riggs says it’s the remnants of a water drain or, more likely, a sewer from a private residence whose owners ran a store on the same property. The sewer, which dates to the 1830s, extends several meters into the quad, where it would have fed into a larger drain that runs from the south part of McCorkle Place north toward Franklin Street. The researchers took large stones off the top of the sewer that was stuffed with soil. There Fitts found more cellophane wrappers and the reason for them—a rat’s nest. No one was home; just some trash. She also found more kitchenware from the 1830s and a cow bone.
“This is a study in urban archaeology,” Riggs says. “We have feature upon feature upon feature. What brought this to our attention was all the stuff they dug up—nails, lots of glass, bone, china.” On the other side of the pit there’s the sewer from the 1830s. There’s a lot of clay overlying the cellar and the sewer—it was probably added as fill when Vance Hall was built. Dividing the pit there’s a metal pipe sticking out from under Vance Hall. “No one seems to know what that conduit is,” Riggs says. “Maybe it’s an old gas line. Maybe there are live electrical wires in there.” But the rusting pipe is definitely more modern than the artifacts. And now there’s a new white stormwater pipe that construction workers put in place this fall.
The dig is the latest of several Davis has led across campus during the last twenty years. “Small projects like this one provide new information about the people who lived, worked, and studied in Chapel Hill during the university’s earliest years,” he says. “They also provide a convenient yet valuable opportunity for students to participate in archaeological fieldwork.”
Davis and Riggs will work with students in the spring 2012 semester to analyze their findings.