North Carolina

Colonial ‘time capsule’ found under floors of NC port tavern that burned in 1760s

Archaeologists exploring the site of a recently discovered 18th Century tavern in eastern North Carolina say they were stunned to learn it burned to the ground with a treasure trove of merchandise stored under the floorboards.

The fire, which occurred in the 1760s, caused the walls to collapse over the floors, sealing the crawl space shut like a “time capsule,” says Dr. Charles Ewen, who led the dig with a crew of students from East Carolina University.

It is suspected the site might also have served as a brothel for the historic port, known as Brunswick Town.

Items found under the foundation include intact smoking pipes that were never used, crushed liquor bottles and iron tools that historians can’t yet identify, Ewen told the Charlotte Observer.

“It’s something every archaeologist hopes to find,” Ewen said in a phone interview. “It’s a snapshot in time. Everything there got trapped.”

Even the building itself is a revelation, having been left off any known maps of Brunswick Town, a major pre-American Revolution port on the Cape Fear River.

Brunswick Town “was razed by British troops in 1776 and never rebuilt,” according to North Carolina Historic Sites.

Proof of the tavern’s existence was first discovered last year when an ECU student was exploring the spot with ground penetrating radar, officials said. The building was roughly 15-foot by 25-foot, and the artifacts were found about 5 feet down.

Ewen says the artifacts are indicative of a Colonial tavern, including the brass tap from a wine barrel and a lot of broken mugs and goblets. An Irish half penny from 1766 was also found, giving historians an idea of the latest date the tavern would have operated, he said.

Land records suggest it may have been built in the mid-1730s to early 1740s by mariner Edward Scott and operated for 30 years before being destroyed by what is believed to be an accidental fire, officials said.

Whether it was a brothel can’t be proven conclusively, but taverns in port towns often served that dual purpose for sailors, said Jim McKee, site manager of Brunswick Town and Ft. Anderson.

Artifacts found have included thimbles, straight pins and clothing fasteners associated with the town’s female populace, officials said. However, it’s possible those items were part of a sewing kit carried by a man, McKee says.

“Taverns really were one of the most important structures in a Colonial town, because they served so many purposes. Think of them almost as country club,” McKee says. “You would have a group of men talking business transactions, a group of people talking law, a group of people talking gossip and, of course, leisure. You might even have had escort service being run out of them.”

McKee told the Observer the discovery has confronted historians with a realization that the 250-year-old map they’ve relied on to document the site’s historic structures isn’t telling the whole story.

“There is still a lot here we don’t know about,” McKee said. “It raises a lot of questions, which I guess is part of the fun of archaeology. What our maps may not tell us is what was burned down or torn down. It’s really kind of opened our eyes to the possibility of things waiting to be found.”

The month-long dig ended Friday, June 14, when the foundation was covered with plastic and reburied. Work ended with the tavern’s fireplace still undiscovered, but work will continue next summer to find it, Ewen said.

Historians will spend the coming months studying the artifacts, including figuring out what some of the mysterious tools were used for, he said. Some of the items will eventually be displayed at museums, Ewen said.

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.