Digging Into History

by Feb 5, 2021Nonprofits, South Brunswick

Public Archeology Corps unearths artifacts that tell the forgotten story of a place, as happened at their recent dig at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport.

PAC. The acronym may be well known, but this time it stands for Public Archeology Corps, and they have nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with rescuing and preserving our past. The Pender County-based organization recently completed a dig at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport.

PAC is a nonprofit organization that conducts archeological digs on privately owned land that is not protected by state and federal laws. Without the efforts of this group, the rich history that these properties hold would be lost. As Johnny Connor, an experienced PAC volunteer and recovery specialist, puts it, “We find the things that are lost, the things are hidden and the things that are forgotten.”

Southport NC PAC

PAC was founded in 2013 by its current executive director, Jon Schleier, who is an archeologist at Ft. Bragg. The excavation is done by an all-volunteer workforce under the direction of professionally trained archeologists and experienced historians. Some of the volunteers have participated in several PAC digs, but they were especially excited about a current one because of the location’s proximity to Ft. Johnston and the Cape Fear River and its involvement in the Civil War.

This excavation opportunity came about because the building on the property, the c. 1895 Carr-Jorgensen House, was demolished in June to free up land for a new structure that will be used for the church’s offices, classrooms and meetings. Since construction on that building was not scheduled to begin until mid-August, PAC had a window of opportunity to explore what was formerly the site of so much Southport history.

The Chapel of the Cross at St. Philip’s Church was erected in 1843 to serve the soldiers at Ft. Johnston. In 1865 after Ft. Johnston was evacuated by the Confederate forces, the church was immediately seized and occupied by Union forces. It was used as a hospital for their wounded men and later served as a school for African-American children. The house that was built on that property in 1895 was purchased by the Jorgensen family in 1911, and it was their family home until 1963, when they moved to the outskirts of town and their old home became part of the Southport school system.

PAC Military Button NC

Sometime later St. Philip’s Church acquired the property and the house. If it were not for PAC, so much of the south’s history from that time period would have been lost with the home’s demolition and new construction. But because PAC was quick to get involved, the Civil War coins, military buttons, jewelry, marbles, telegraph pieces and several other 18th and 19th century artifacts will give historians what they need to piece together a more complete story of the part that the Confederate soldiers, Ft. Johnston and the blockade runners played in the Civil War.

Here is a sampling of what was found:
Eagle military button dating around 1812
King George III Colonial British half penny dated 1777
Fire-glazed clay marble from the 1760s
Brass pocket watch casing
Suspender clip from the Civil War era
Opal ring from the mid-1900s and most likely belonged to one of the Jorgensen women.
Zinc receptacle inside of a telegraph battery that was thought to be used to transmit information from the site to alert the blockade runners to leave
Mechanical pencil dated 1872 from the patent number
Pipe stem made from Kaolin clay. The date will be established by measuring the width of the cylinder – the wider the opening the older the pipe
Bayonet. Possibly from the Revolutionary War, but more likely the Civil War. This item was found on their last morning at the site, and it lay right on top of the ground. Conjecture is that the rain from Hurricane Isaias literally washed it up.

Digging Site Southport NC PAC

A PAC excavation is a well-documented procedure. First, the volunteers use a metal detector to locate the most likely spots to dig. Each promising location is then accurately plotted on a grid and marked with a small red or white flag. The next step is to dig farther down in 6-inch increments. At each level, the dirt is dug up and thrown on a wire mesh platform and shaken back and forth to retain only the solid pieces. Each solid piece is examined, and if of possible interest, it is saved in a bucket for further exploration and identification.

Logically the most recent artifacts are found closer to the surface. But not always. The group was surprised to find several Civil War pieces during their first day of digging. And on their last day they found a couple of 20th century toys, including a marble and jacks in one of the deepest holes. When I ask how this could happen, Chris Copf, a seasoned volunteer, says, “It could be that a ground hog dug a deep hole and churned up the dirt. Or a tree’s root system could have displaced it.”

However, Johnny Connor offered a different explanation. He thinks the reason “the time periods just bounce around” is that when the new addition was put on the building in the early 1990s, the ground was dug up and new soil brought in. When they put the layers back, they put the new soil on the bottom and the old soil on top. So, while the reason for the unusual disruption in the time periods may not be completely known, the result is clear; artifacts from more than 250 years ago are sometimes unearthed very close to the surface.

The next step in the recovery process is to clean the artifacts just enough to expose their markings, but not enough to destroy their character. Then Schleier and Connor will research each piece with the help of several reference books and diagnostic tools and put together a story from what they have recovered and what they learn about each piece. When I ask if they will be able to identify the bayonet and determine whether it was from the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, Schleier candidly confesses that he isn’t sure.

“Sometimes the data tells you everything you need to know, and sometimes all you are left with is a question mark,” he says.

After the artifacts are identified and dated, they will be turned over to the church as the rightful owners because they were recovered from the church’s property. And the church will decide what to do with them. One suggestion is to put them in a display case. Another church member thought they might be donated either to the Maritime Museum or the Southport Historical Society. Wherever they end up on display, it will be well worth a visit to see this latest piece of Southport’s rich history.

PAC welcomes anyone who has an interest in exploring the mysteries of the past or likes the excitement of coming across an unexpected piece of history. “This is perfect for anyone who never got over the fun of digging in the dirt,” Copf says.

If you are interested in volunteering with this group or donating to further their cause, visit their website at: publicarchaeologycorps.org/