If buildings could talk, the ones with the best stories would most certainly be taverns—or bars, or pubs, or whatever your preferred name is for a place where people gather to get a bit loose together. And while today’s bars certainly have their fair share of stories, there was a time before mass communication in which the tavern held an even more important place in the community. That was where you went to get sauced and learn about what was going on in the world. The seeds of the American revolution were sewn at Colonial taverns, by thirty-something-year-old dudes over pints of strong ale (which makes sense, in retrospect). In fact, if taverns could tell the best stories, there’s a strong case to be made that the taverns of Colonial America could tell the best stories of all. The ruins of one such tavern in North Carolina were recently discovered, and archaeologists found that the fire which destroyed the building in the 1760’s had sealed up the crawl space and perfectly preserved a treasure trove of Colonial artifacts.
The tavern is located in eastern North Carolina and was once part of the major port city of Brunswick Town. Brunswick Town was razed by British soldiers during the revolutionary war and was never rebuilt, but archaeologists say that the fire which destroyed this tavern likely happened the decade prior. Strangely, the tavern doesn’t appear on any known maps of Brunswick Town, which makes this a lost tavern inside a lost city. The ruins were discovered last year by a student at East Carolina University (ECU) who was exploring the area with ground penetrating radar, but it’s only now that the site has actually been excavated.
During the excavation, archaeologists from ECU found that although the structure had been destroyed, the walls had collapsed in such a way that sealed the crawl space beneath—a crawl space filled with merchandise and other artifacts that have been preserved almost 260 years later. Items found include never-used smoking pipes, liquor bottles, taps from wine casks and various tools that haven’t yet been identified. Charles Ewen, an ECU archaeologist, says:
“It’s something every archaeologist hopes to find. It’s a snapshot in time. Everything there got trapped.”
Land records show that the tavern was likely built in the 1730’s or 1740’s by mariner Edward Scott and stood as a community hub for approximately 30 years before being accidentally burned down.
According to Jim McKee, site manage of Brunswick Town and Ft. Anderson, taverns served many functions in a Colonial town, which makes this find all the more impressive. It’s a snapshot of every part of Colonial life. 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. 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.”
According to McKee, the discovery also shows how little they still know about the area:
“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.”
ECU archaeologists say there’s still a lot to be learned from the site when excavations resume next year. Until then, they say their work will be focused on identifying some of the artifacts found and trying to piece together the whole story.