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Archaeology

By 1950 the 200-year-old colonial town, known locally as “Old Town,” had evolved into a 19th-century farming village, dotted by a few rural stores and Victorian homes, but largely surrounded by cornfields. What remained of the buildings after the move to Salem in 1786 had been pushed into the stone cellars and covered with topsoil to expand the fields.

Similar to the restoration story of Colonial Williamsburg, where the local minister convinced prominent philanthropist John D. Rockefeller to save the historic town, Edwin Stockton, a Moravian church official from Winston-Salem, convinced businessman and philanthropist Charles Babcock, Sr. To purchase and preserve the site of historic Bethabara. Just like Colonial Williamsburg, Stockton served as Babcock’s real estate agent and, over the next few years, he assisted Babcock in purchasing the land.

In 1953, the 200th anniversary of the founding of Bethabara, the congregation of Bethabara Moravian Church built a new sanctuary to accommodate their growing population. The congregation had worshiped in the historic Gemeinhaus, meaning “meeting house” in German, for 165 years.

In the 1960s, Stockton and Babcock added a third person to their team, North Carolina State Archaeologist Stanley South. Using the copious Moravian written records and period maps of Bethabara, South uncovered 27 archaeological features between 1963 and 1966 and revealed a colonial settlement of national importance. Using the excavation of Bethabara as his field study, South evolved the method and theory of American historic archaeology into the “New Archaeology,” which focused on the interpretation of objects.South’s investigation uncovered post hole evidence of a French and Indian War defensive palisade (1756-63), the first Gemeinhaus (1756), the Congregation Store (1759), the Single Brothers House (1754), the Pottery Shop (1755), the Sleep Hall (pre-1759), the Blacksmith’s House (1755), the Tailor Shop (1756), the new Tavern and well (1775), the Apothecary Shop (1763), the Doctor’s Laboratory (1759), and four wells built between 1763 and 1807. In addition, South found the location of the Hans Wagner cabin (ca. 1752), where the first settlers slept their first few nights as they constructed more permanent structures.

South’s most important excavation took place in 1966 at the Christ/Krause pottery waster dump. In his book, Archaeology of Bethabara, he noted that the Rudolph Christ ceramics are “now quite well-known as the best pottery in America during the 18th century.”

South’s excavations have been followed by other important archaeological investigations done in cooperation with the North Carolina Division of Archaeology and Wake Forest University. Excavations in 1973 and 1974 at the Potter’s House (1782) uncovered a pottery kiln, the only Moravian earthenware kiln excavated in the country, and one of the few central European kilns ever investigated. These excavations confirmed that Bethabara held the longest, continuous pottery tradition in American history, moving from master to journeyman to apprentice, and spanning 100 years from the 1750s to the 1850s.

In 1985, the Stranger’s Cemetery (1759), Dobb’s Parrish Cemetery (1769), and Bethabara Mill Site (1754) were investigated. Limited archaeological investigation uncovered rock foundations of the complex along Mill Creek. The Bethabara Mill may have been the largest industrial complex in the 1750s in the Carolinas. Many of the mill’s original timbers have been recovered and preserved.

In 1985, 1988, and 1989, North Carolina archaeologist John Clauser excavated the Bethabara Community Gardens, the only known, well-documented colonial community garden in America. The excavations revealed fence post holes, outlining the gardens and marking gates, paths, and a grape arbor. These excavations have been incorporated in the present reconstruction of the Community and Medicinal Gardens, based on the archaeological excavation and detailed colonial maps.

In the early 2000s, the Wake Forest Archaeology Laboratory conducted an archaeological investigation that revealed information about the fencing of the Stranger’s Graveyard (1759) and the location of the Single Brother’s Sleeping Hall (1754). Along with the Moravian maps, these archaeological discoveries informed the reconstruction of the first settlement, the route of the early colonial road system connecting the main settlement to the Bethabara Mill, and the location of the French and Indian War refugee cabins (1758), which formed the north wall of the Bethabara Mill Fort. The Mill and Mill Fort are among the most important archaeological sites remaining to be excavated and interpreted on the 100,000 acre Wachovia Tract.

In order to minimize site damage, Historic Bethabara Park initiated experiments with remote sensing (GPR) at possible archaeological sites. This was completed in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Wake Forest Archaeological Laboratory in the early 2000s. In subsequent summer field schools, co-sponsored by the Laboratory and Winston-Salem State University, sites at the palisade fort and the Bethabara Mill Fort refuge cabins have been tested.