CHAPEL HILL - Crouching sensibly in jeans and flannel - this is an excavation site, after all - Anna Agbe-Davis carefully collects soil inside a 32-square-foot pit outside Vance Hall in UNC's McCorkle Place.
The assistant professor of anthropology uses a sharpened masonry trowel to carve clean edges that help assess changes in the soil. Graduate student Mary Beth Fitts helps set the soil inside a bucket identified by letters and numbers that place its precise location in the pit, about 2 feet beneath ground level.
The meticulous process was set into motion in late October when contractors laying a new drainage pipe for the 99-year-old building nicked some artifacts - among them pieces of plates, cow and pig bones and bottle glass - and alerted UNC archaeologists to their discovery.
It's not unusual for such sites to turn up on the older parts of campus along East Franklin Street, where, in many cases, homes and other structures gave way to university buildings.
The property that includes the Vance Hall site, for example, was not purchased by the university until 1905.
Led by adjunct anthropology professors Steve Davis and Brett Riggs, a team of professors, graduate students and undergraduate students began excavating, sampling and cataloging the site for UNC's Research Labs of Archaeology on Nov. 14.
Davis and Riggs already knew quite a bit about the site, from deed records, by lining up GIS maps and exploring university histories by former UNC president Kemp Plummer Battle and UNC historian William Powell.
They knew a large hotel, built by 1880 and known originally as the Roberson Hotel, once sat pretty much on the Vance Hall footprint. They also knew that the hotel had been remodeled and enlarged from a residential compound of sorts; the first record of a home there is from about 1797.
Now they had the opportunity to literally dig into some of the details of those structures - and from those details ultimately extrapolate on the lives of their residents, workers and lodgers.
"What archaeologists do is look at other people's trash," Davis said.Old dumping site
The team soon discovered that the artifacts lay in soil within a stone-lined drain or sewer of the sort found all around campus. The artifacts dumped in the drain likely pre-date the Civil War.
About 10 plate fragments were from a locally manufactured plate probably made in southern Alamance County, Davis said. Other ceramic fragments, from green-edged pearlware, were from England. The style of these plates suggests they were made before 1830.
The drain was likely put in about 1830 or 1840, at about the same time as the construction at the lot's south end of the Poor House, likely so-named by students who lived there. With more people, of course, came more trash and waste - and more use for a drain.
"It was used as a dumping site. It may have been an open sewer," Riggs said while the dig was under way. "These drains were common in Europe. They would have been a sign of modernity in early-19th century America," where sewage running in the streets was more the norm.
The plate was probably a serving dish that broke. The drain "was probably a convenient place to pitch it," Davis said Tuesday. "It was a convenient place to get rid of stuff."
At least one other drain discovered also running east and west further south on McCorkle Place suggests drains from perhaps a half dozen university buildings at the time fed into something larger running north and south.
An early public works program that at that time was "somewhat forward thinking," Davis said.Real-life labs
The excavation wrapped up Nov. 23. Aside from salvaging artifacts and offering valuable information for researchers, digs like these also provide first-hand, real-life labs for students.
Two or three classes came out and observed the site, and close to a dozen students so far have participated in the filtering and cleaning phases.
This dig's small expense, paid for by federal stimulus money, covers paying students a fraction of what professionals would charge, said archaeologist and professor Vin Steponaitis, director of the Research Labs.
A blue tarp now covers the pit, which UNC Buildings and Grounds will soon backfill with soil to replace what the archaeologists removed, about 100 buckets worth. So far the soil from about a dozen of those buckets has been processed, said Davis.
In the process of sifting the soil through window screen, there have been smaller finds: straight pins, molded clay pipe fragments, egg shell and some oyster shell that would have come from Wilmington and been used as a source of lime for making mortar. There likely were some oyster feasts associated with commencement balls on campus.
Fitts will analyze and write up the report for the excavation in the spring, Davis said. As findings from the excavation take shape, they should provide a window on the mid-19th century world of UNC and its environs.
"What the artifact assemblage does, it gives us a material perspective on the lives of these people," Davis said. "In terms of ceramics, what it would have cost for consumers to purchase those. Through the animal bones and carbonized plant remains we get a sense of diet. What we're interested in is trying to understand what the lives of these people were like."
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