UNC-Chapel Hill experts, students unlock history of historic home
An archeological dig was underway Friday to uncover artifacts under the University of North Carolina system president’s driveway, where experts believe they’ve found the foundation of a home important to the history of the university.
They believe they found the foundation of the second UNC-Chapel Hill presidential home, said Brett Riggs, a research archeologist at the UNC-Chapel Hill Research Laboratories of Archaeology and an adjunct anthropology assistant professor.
The two-story frame house on Franklin Street, believed to have been completed in 1812, was home to the university’s first president, Joseph Caldwell, and David Swain, who served as North Carolina governor as well as UNC-Chapel Hill president,. The home burned on Christmas Eve 1886, Riggs said.
“This would have been the social center of the university in its early years really for a half century,” Riggs said. “And this is the only view that we’ll have of this thing because all of this will be covered back up.”
Earlier this week, workers had stumbled upon the foundation of the home while repairing of UNC system President Tom Ross’s driveway, said Susan Hudson, a university spokeswoman.
Since Wednesday, university archeology experts and volunteer students have been working at the site, Riggs said.
On Friday, students were on their hands and knees in the heat of the day using trowels to scrape away dirt to uncover stone, nails and other items. Later, they used vacuums to clear away dirt.
They have found pieces of china, glass, nails, and what Riggs said was a cast-iron stove. Riggs said they will catalog materials they uncover and put them into the university’s permanent collection.
They also planned to take an aerial photo of the parts of the foundation area they had cleared, Riggs said. They will use the images to create a mosaic map of the 24-by-40-foot foundation.
“Before this, no one knew precisely where it was,” he said
Next week, he said, they plan to dig a 7-foot hole, he said. That will allow them to recover more material that fell in when the house burned.
Riggs said burned remains were raked into the cellar, which had actually been used as the formal dining room.
“It was just kind of the fashion of the day,” Riggs said, of the placement of the formal dining room in the basement.
After Swain died, Riggs said the property was divided to allow for the construction of a second nearby home, now known as the Love House. He said the former Caldwell and Swain home burned in 1886 just as a professor had moved in.
They already knew a lot about the home from research they did on the Love House, which now houses The Center for the Study of the American South. Riggs was a co-author of the research report on that house.
“But what we didn’t know was precisely where this house sat on the lot,” Riggs said. “We had suspected that it was further to the north.”
For a long, time, he said, the home was only one of two on the south side of Franklin Street. He said Caldwell had it built when he was courting the woman who would become his second wife, and lived there until he died. It became Swain’s home in 1849, according to the research report. He lived there during the Civil War and until his death. Swain’s daughter was courted by a Union commander in a “huge scandal.”
“In fact, (the commander) was head over heels in love with (Swain’s daughter) and he sent the regimental band over to serenade her,” Riggs said. “So there was a brass band outside playing,” he added.
Riggs said they’re “dead sure” it’s the second UNC-Chapel Hill presidential home. He said the dimensions match those laid out in a letter that Caldwell wrote to his brother in 1812. There’s also a drawing that depicts the house with end chimneys.
“We have a chimney there and a chimney here,” he said. “See that light-colored material? That is really mortar that was in the base of the chimney, there, and there’s brick in there.”
Riggs said they have a short timetable to complete the archeological project because Ross’ driveway needs to be completed. They will cover back over the area with gravel and have a brick roundabout installed.
“What we’re trying to do – we have a very limited time scale here,” he said. “We really need to get this driveway fixed so that the president can get back in. Everybody has trouble parking in Chapel Hill, including the president of the university.”
Among the group of student-volunteers working at the dig-site on Friday was Isaac Warshauer, an undergraduate student at UNC. He said he had researched the houses of the university’s presidents for a paper, including the second home.
Warshauer said he has some previous digging experience in the field, and enjoys the work.
“It’s sort of a meditative thing to do,” he said. “And it’s also just fun to able to deal with the artifacts left behind from over 130 years ago.”
The opportunity gave graduate student Rebecca Worsham her first experience at an archeological dig in the United States. She said she has worked at dig-sites in Greece, where she’s seen artifacts that are poorly preserved and hard to interpret.
“It’s hard, but it’s definitely rewarding,” she said of the work.