One man’s trash is another’s treasure: Public Archaeology Corps invites everyone to salvage history

"Archaeology is very much a thing here in Southeastern North Carolina. It doesn’t just happen in Egypt or Greece, you can come down here to Princess Street and see it being done."

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Two students, one from UNCW and another from ECU, work on finding artifacts from dirt underneath the sub-floor of 208 Princess St. (Photo by Christina Haley.)
Wes Nimmo (left) from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Anthropology Department and Samuel Timken from Eastern Carolina University’s Anthropology Department, work on finding artifacts from dirt underneath 208 Princess St. in Wilmington. The building is not only a construction site, but an excavation site for the Public Archaeology Corps.  (Photo by Christina Haley.)

SOUTHEASTERN, NORTH CAROLINA — Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty; unleash your inner archaeologist.

A local non-profit organization is working to connect the Wilmington-area community with professional archaeologists and historians to salvage pieces of history on private land. Public Archaeology Corps, led by Executive Director and local archaeologist Jon Schleier, right now is studying the findings from a recent dig inside an historic building at 208 Princess St. in Wilmington.

The building is undergoing construction to restore the property back to its original character and to transform the space into a new events center and retail business for downtown Wilmington, according to President and CEO of SDI Construction Beth Pancoe. Construction on the original building began in 1914 and finished in 1915, she said.

Pancoe said she heard about Public Archaeology Corps from another downtown business owner and invited the organization to dig at the site.

“I thought it was so fabulous, because we love doing historic restoration and we knew we were going to have floors open in various locations over a period of the next few months,” Pancoe said. “So we invited Jon to come in and start digging with us. And it’s been just amazing and so interesting ever since we started.”

Schleier, a field team of archaeologists, students and a few members of the community, have since set their shovels to the dirt to see what lies beneath the building. They have uncovered some surprising findings and artifacts.

Port City Daily joined Pancoe and Schleier at the site of the most recent dig at the Princess Street building just before the holidays. There, archaeologists and students from East Carolina University and UNC-Wilmington joined together for a new dig site at the back of the building.

Artifacts lying on a sifter for observation.
Artifacts lying on a sifter for observation.

The dig started with a 5-by 5-foot section of dirt that was once underneath the sub-floor, some of which has been removed for construction. The team dug in 6-inch depths, sifting through hundreds of artifacts and cataloging each layer along the way; artifacts that would have otherwise been lost to the renovation.

Bone fragments, glass bottle fragments, buttons from clothing, and fragments of old ceramic dishware or plates were just some of the items found in a single section of dirt during one Saturday dig.

“In this excavation unit … we’ve actually found a lot of bone. So, this is potentially a trash area, which we as archaeologists really love,” Schleier said. “It just gives us a really good idea of what people were eating and what their life was like.”

A lot of the artifacts from the dig were thought to be from the late-1800s and early-1900s. One of the best artifacts was a glass bottle top with script on it that marked a patent date of April 10, 1900. It’s from that particular artifact, that archaeologists can say “with confidence” that some of the artifacts from the dig could possibly be from that time period, Schleier said.

“Now as we go down further, we may go down further in time. Perhaps to the later-1800’s,” Schleier said.

This was the third test site the Public Archaeology Corps has explored inside the Princess Street building, and one of several similar excavations the organization has conducted in the Wilmington area since 2014.

A bottle top has a patent date from 1900.
A bottle top has a patent date from 1900.

A 10-by 10-foot area along the back side of the Princess Street building uncovered a disturbed area and little bits of coal. Those, as well as other things in that area could be remnants of the blacksmith’s shop that once occupied the space before it was demolished in 1914 to make way for the building that stands today.

The group also set their shovels to the front of the building and found remnants of a structure that both Schleier and Pancoe believe was once part of the building’s original vestibule, or foyer area.

“When they got under the surface, they found a structure that belonged to the original construction of the building, a brick feature,” Schleier said. “It was kind of curious because I didn’t expect to find that brick there.”

Schleier said they found an archaeological footprint at the front of the building that did not match what they had previously believed to be the building’s facade. The final piece of the puzzle came when Pancoe found an old newspaper article that showed the original front of the building the day after it was dedicated.

“It actually shows a lady standing here looking into a window … we saw this illustration, actually showing us the original front of the building, that this was in fact a little vestibule area leading up to the original doorway,” Schleier said. “That was pretty neat.”

Pancoe said the artifacts the Public Archaeology Corps have found will be displayed on the first floor of the newly renovated building.  SDI Construction had a special glass case built specifically for the artifacts so that interesting finds, along with the history of the building, can be exhibited for years to come.

And that’s what the Public Archaeology Corps’ mission is all about, Schleier said.

“Once this process is all finished, we’ve done our analysis, we’ve written our report, and the renovation is done on the building — a lot of the artifacts are going to come back here to the building to be displayed. So … we can continue to interpret the history and the archaeology to the public through the displays. It’s a very cool process,” he said.

The Public Archaeology Corps aims to conduct archaeology on privately-owned land with help from the public.

“We do [archaeology] in such a way that the public can come in an see what we’re doing, ask questions, see the whole process of archaeology done,” Schleier said. “We’re really trying to bring it home to people, to the average person, that archaeology is very much a thing here in Southeastern North Carolina. It doesn’t just happen in Egypt or Greece, you can come down here to Princess Street and see it being done.”

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Men, women and children, curious enough to stop by the Princess Street building, get an archaeology lesson about the site from Executive Director of Public Archaeology Corps, Jon Schleier.

The greater mission the Public Archaeology Corps addresses is the loss of archaeological sites on privately owned land due to development. The organization’s leaders hope to develop more relationships with the community and partners, like the one on Princess Street with SDI Construction, for the salvation of the city’s history, Schleier said.

“We can get in, not cost anything to them, not affect their bottom line at all, but just get the data of what was there before,” he said. “And so we can preserve the data, and we spread some information to the public, and it’s a good process.”

Schleier is trying to make the corps a model that will work anywhere in the country. While there are other non-profit archaeology groups in the state, Schleier said there is not one as active in the field.

Public Archaeology Corps is going into the Princess Street building this month for just one more dig before the end of the excavation project.

To donate, to stay updated on the next Public Archaeology Corps dig, or to see what else its team uncovers from excavation sites, follow the organization on Facebook or visit the Public Archaeology Corps website.

Watch the full video from the excavation: