Data Recovery at 31ON1582: Early American Life on a Coastal Plantation
Onslow County, North Carolina
Archaeological data recovery investigations were conducted by ACC, Inc. at site 31ON1582 in Onslow County, North Carolina in 2006 and 2007. The site was comprised of material and structural remains dating to the last half of the eighteenth century through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and included the Spicer family cemetery. The primary methods of field investigations were mechanical scraping of four blocks within the site, and the detailed mapping and excavation of cultural features. The Spicer family cemetery was cleaned and thoroughly documented.
Archaeological data showed at least two structures present in the site. Historic resources and the quality and quantity of artifacts recovered suggest one structure may have been an early log residence. The second structure was more enigmatic and its function was not clear, but it may have been a residence or a country store. Additionally, artifacts recovered and feature clusters identified from a third excavation block suggested the presence of a nearby (but unlocated) main house structure. Mean ceramic dates indicated that these structures were occupied sequentially with relatively little overlap.
Pit features were extremely common at 31ON1582. Several of these pits reflect specific activities, such as animal butchering areas and a possible candle-making “hearth.” A large number of these pits were likely utilized for storage of foodstuffs and valuables. Despite their initially intended function, however, all were ultimately used for refuse disposal. One feature, Feature 627, even exhibits multiple dumping episodes separated by burning episodes.
Archival evidence has established that the Spicers owned land in and around the tract area as early as 1754, and it is likely that site area had been in the Spicer family since the first Spicers lived in Onslow County. The Spicers were planters, politicians, slave owners, and prominent Onslow County figures. Indeed, the archaeological signature of site 31ON1582 generally reflects the lifestyle of a well-to-do family. However, the artifact patterns identified at 31ON1582 do not correspond well with any of the established artifact patterns. This ambiguity has much to do with the shortage of archaeological work that has been conducted on Colonial and Early American sites in coastal North Carolina.
“Plantations” in Onslow County do not fit the typical picture of the southern plantation as characterized by tracts of lands devoted to rice, indigo, tobacco, or cotton crops. However, the abundant long-leaf pine that flourished in the sandy soil of the Coastal Plain provided the resources in the form of naval stores to drive the plantation system of Onslow County and the North Carolina Coastal Plain. While North Carolinians used more indentured servants than many other areas, they, too, depended on slave labor for the success of their plantations. Although archival accounts document extensive slave ownership by the Spicer family, the primary hallmark of slave presence, colonoware, was sparse at 31ON1582. This fact combined with the documented roles of slaves in the local market economy requires us to closely examine our interpretations of artifact assemblages and to learn to recognize the presence of African American slaves whose possessions consisted solely of European goods.
The importance of the investigations at site 31ON1582 lies largely in the fact that little archaeological work has been done in the coastal region of North Carolina on eighteenth and early nineteenth century rural sites, and virtually none has been done in Onslow. The lack of data is exacerbated by the fact that Colonial and Antebellum North Carolina (and especially Onslow County) do not appear to subscribe to the “typical” southern plantation or farm system, making what data we collect even more valuable as we try to make sense of the state’s past. As more investigations of these types of sites are conducted, it is hoped that the data retrieved from 31ON1582 will contribute substantially to the establishment of patterns reflecting the lifeways of coastal North Carolina plantations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.