The first comprehensive archaeological survey of the State Capitol grounds got underway Thursday, with Jacob Turner pushing what looked like a three-wheeled baby stroller back and forth across the lawn.
The stroller held a ground-penetrating radar machine that can detect anomalies more than a meter under the grass – which might indicate something left behind long ago, like an old foundation or a trash pit. Turner, a Ph.D. student from UNC Greensboro, which owns the machine, watched on a monitor for little blips in the electromagnetic waves that suggest there’s something worth chasing with a shovel.
Archaeologists have made previous small investigations on Union Square, where the state’s first Capitol building was completed in 1796. But the ground-penetrating radar makes a comprehensive survey of the entire 5-acre square possible, said John Mintz, the assistant state archaeologist. Without it, archaeologists would have to simply dig, either randomly or based on hunches, and hope they find what’s there.
The radar doesn’t work like a metal detector on the beach, Turner said; it won’t find individual buttons, coins or even bottles.
“This machine is not good at finding small objects, tiny artifacts,” he said. “It’s better at finding large objects and surfaces,” like a basement wall or a pile of trash dumped down an old privy.
Turner is part of a team from UNC Greensboro that’s working with Mintz, a private firm called New South Associates and various volunteers to complete the first phase of the survey over three days, starting Thursday. They hope to create radar maps of two quadrants of Union Square in that time. Archaeologists and others will then study and debate what the radar signals mean, said Roy Stine, a geologist with the archaeology program at UNCG.
“With a lot of it, you spend a lot of time scratching your head on,” Stine said.
Stine’s wife, Linda, a professor of historical archaeology at UNCG, didn’t want to wait for the maps before beginning the traditional work of picking at the dirt with trowels. She and a group of volunteers removed the grass from a test plot and began carefully removing the soil, to get an idea what the dirt on the square is like.
As the soil was sifted through a screen, it didn’t take long for the volunteers to find the first artifact: A fingernail-size piece of green glass, soon followed by a plastic bottle cap and a piece of a mechanical pencil. Stine put them all in a plastic bag.
Then they hit something hard. Taking turns, the volunteers carefully excavated around what by afternoon looked like a tree stump with a brick nestled against it.
“Usually if it’s straight-looking, humans made it,” Stine said.
Union Square has always been public property; nothing existed there before it was laid out in 1792 as one of Raleigh’s five original public squares. But while the Capitol has stood alone for decades, the square once contained other buildings, including outhouses, offices for the governor and the secretary of the treasury, and an armory that was later used for storage until it was removed in 1907. Artifacts from all of those structures, and decades of public use, could lie beneath the lawn and sidewalks.
Mintz said it will be a couple of months before the data gathered this week has been analyzed and decisions made about where to dig. There’s no timetable for when the UNCG team will return with its radar to map other parts of the square, he said.
“It’s an open-ended project,” Mintz said. “It’s basically dictated by time and when everyone can fit it in.”
Unlike most archaeological excavations, the survey of the Capitol grounds will be done very much under the public eye. Curious onlookers and several school groups stopped by Thursday as the volunteers dug their test plot.
That’s the way the archaeologists want it, Mintz said. One goal of the survey is to get people interested in archaeology and what it can tell us about the past.
Stories and myths
Some of the historical stories and myths about the State Capitol, Raleigh and the South will be explored and explained in a program at the Capitol building Saturday at 11 a.m. Kara Deadmon and Marty Matthews of N.C. State Historic Sites will focus on myths of the Capitol; Kimberly Floyd of the City of Raleigh Museum and the Pope House Museum will focus more broadly on Raleigh myths, and John Sherrer of Historic Columbia will speak to myths elsewhere in the South. The event is free and open to the public.