After a bath, archaeological artifacts tell the story of a Princess Street building

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Princess artifact wash 5
Princess artifact wash 5
Two students help wash artifacts in between classes.
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WILMINGTON — Archaeological artifacts unearthed from under a Princess Street building in downtown Wilmington are now in the first steps of documentation and preservation.

Jon Schleier, Executive Director of the Public Archaeology Corps, was joined by a few students at UNC-Wilmington’s Anthropology Department on Friday, to begin the process of washing thousands of artifacts that were dug up during an archaeological dig that began at 208 Princess St., late last year.

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

The process to discover the artifacts started when the Beth Pancoe, president and CEO of SDI Construction, contacted Schleier about the project. The Princess Street project is within the mission of the non-profit organization to create public-private partnerships to recover archaeology artifacts that would otherwise be lost to development on private land. The dig was one of five the group has conducted in the Cape Fear Region since 2014.

“It’s kind of like a hearts and minds campaign,” Schleier said. “Like with Princess Street, everything we did was in the public eye, so that they could come in and see what archaeology is all about. A lot of people don’t even realize that this kind of thing happens here.”

Student volunteers joined in on Friday, to help wash the artifacts.
Student volunteers joined in on Friday, to help wash the artifacts.

The artifacts were pulled from three sections of earth underneath the building, bagged and collected for documentation and research. Using a toothbrush, sifter and a couple of bowls filled with water, Schleier and his student volunteers carefully washed every artifact, piece by piece.

The process will continue for weeks until all artifacts have had their bath. The washing and drying process is just the first step in the research and preservation process.

The artifacts washed on Friday were from a portion of the excavation site, believed to be part of an early blacksmith shop. Schleier said the artifacts are from the 19th century, early 20th century with some outliners from the 18th century.

Colorful pieces of ceramic, horseshoes, a Coke bottle, other glass materials, buttons, pipe stems, and a belt buckle were just some of the items recovered from the site, each developing a story that is the building that’s now 208 Princess St.

“Before the building was up, there was kind of a succession of different buildings,” Schleier said. “It kind of tells us a story of a random lot in Wilmington, which could have similarities to other lots.”

Though the artifacts can’t tell the exact story of 208 Princess St., they can give archaeologists an idea of what people were eating at the time, what tools were used, and confirm some of what was originally thought about the businesses in the building.

A look at some of the unearthed artifacts. The washing and documenting will take several months to complete.
A look at some of the unearthed artifacts. The washing and documenting will take several months to complete.

Once washed, the archaeological evidence will be analyzed. Schleier will take measurements of the artifacts, including size and weight, and enter that data into a spreadsheet. The data taken from the artifacts and a completed site form will then be registered through the Office of State Archaeology for further research.

“You can do a lot of stuff with that data,” Schleier said. He added that the information will be accessible for people doing research, including graduate students.

The “star” artifacts will eventually make their way to the renovated Princess Street building, once construction is complete, Schleier said. With approval from the property owner, it’s also possible Schleier could archive the remaining artifacts at the ad-hoc curation facility for additional study.

“The important thing about this particular project is that we kind of used a window of opportunity to get in (the building), because it’s going to be renovated and will probably be sealed up again for the foreseeable future,” Schleier said “We took the opportunity to get in there and examine the history. And we do this enough times we can start getting a good idea of various settlement patterns here in Wilmington on a lot by lot basis.”

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. The corps also works to educate the public, through school lessons and by inviting the general public to participate in archaeology digs.

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.

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