Underwater divers discover trove of 18th C. artifacts


Martha Williams, columnist


By Martha Williams

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ten thousand individual fragments, 23 five-foot square excavation units, and 1,975 entries on a digital inventory – Although these numbers are pretty mind-boggling, they don’t begin to describe the contents of a growing archeological collection that now resides at the Museum of the Albemarle.

The artifact boxes that now line the Museum’s shelves contain fragments of everything from earthenware milk pans and engraved wine decanters to straight pins, shingles, and shoes—even a cast-iron grave marker. Most date from the early 1800s (although some are even older), and nearly all came from outside North Carolina. There’s a snuff bottle from Troy, New York; teacups, plates, and saucers from England; a stoneware jug made in Hartford, Connecticut; and a ca. 1837 glass flask from Hammonton, New Jersey. All of them come from a remote stretch of the Pasquotank River north of Elizabeth City.

That the collection is now housed at the Museum of the Albemarle is due largely to the efforts of Philip Madre and Eddie Coddington, two diver-historians from Washington, N.C. Armed with a permit from the Underwater Unit of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, they found this trove of materials near two rows of submerged pilings, most of a sunken 60-ft long barge, and the remains of bridge abutments on the banks of the river. Madre, who grew up in Pasquotank County, agreed that the Museum was the most appropriate home for the collection. There it could be cared for properly and made available to others interested in local history.

This large and diverse collection raised an equally important question: How and why did so many objects wind up at the bottom of the Pasquotank River? Finding the answer required some investigations on land—in Pasquotank and Camden County land records, at the State Archives in Raleigh, and from online sources like Ancestry.com and the George Washington papers at the Library of Congress. The archival research re-opened a long-forgotten chapter of northeastern North Carolina history, and revealed that northern Pasquotank County was an early hub of intense commercial activity.

The documents showed that, as early as 1736, a bridge spanned the northern reaches of the Pasquotank River. By 1755, an official was stationed near that bridge to inspect outgoing products like shingles, lumber, and barrels of salt pork and tobacco, and to certify that those commodities met government standards. Washington, who traveled through this portion of the state around 1760, noted that ocean-going vessels from New England could navigate up the Pasquotank River as far as that bridge. And early deeds from the 1790s mention that warehouses for storing incoming and outgoing goods were located near the bridge on both sides of the river. Many names of the landowners and merchants associated with those commercial enterprises—Hinton, Munden, Old, Sawyer, and Abbott, to name a few—are familiar to residents of Pasquotank and Camden counties even today.

The Museum currently is planning an exhibit that will focus on this collection, opening sometime in 2018. Stay tuned!

Martha Williams is a former archaeologist and Museum of the Albemarle volunteer