PAINTER, Va. (AP) — It has been almost three years since brothers Bill and Bob Savage stumbled upon an intact 18th-century brick-lined cellar in a field on their family farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Now they are hoping to spark the interest of professionals with the expertise to help explore and preserve an archaeological site some say could add to the existing body of knowledge about early Colonial history.
It all began when Bill Savage invited members of a local antique tractor club to bring their equipment to the Savages’ seaside farm near Painter for a “plow day” in April 2013.
“We decided to go out and plow the land and get everything ready for the corn crop for my Pungo Creek Mills Indian corn,” said Savage, who operates a business growing, grinding and packaging a heritage variety of cornmeal that dates to the 19th century.
They had plowed most of the field when his brother Bob decided to take his metal detector out to see if he could find an old coin in the fresh-plowed earth.
“All of a sudden I had what I thought was a pretty good hit, so I started digging down… I started getting deeper and deeper. I thought, ‘This is strange,'” Bob Savage said.
After he had dug down almost 18 inches — and was still getting a strong signal — Savage began finding clam and oyster shells, and then intact shellfish.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is really odd.'”
Finally he hit upon the item generating the signal —a metal band from an old wooden barrel.
“As I was digging down around it, all of the sudden I started seeing the edge of a brick wall, so I knew something was definitely interesting there.”
Once their guests left, the two began exploring the site more, starting a process that would continue for weeks.
“Eventually what we discovered was an 18th-century root cellar,” said Bob Savage. “Apparently, it was fully stocked — we found a lot of animal bones, everything from hog to turkey; we found a lot of fish scales, probably drum-sized fish. Then we started finding pottery shards mixed in there in the cellar.”
They continued meticulously excavating the area over the next two months, spending hours on the project after work and on weekends — both men have full-time jobs.
As they continued investigating the surrounding area in an attempt to find the foundation of the house they suspected would be near the cellar, they discovered a second site about 40 feet away.
That spot had a layer of bricks and, underneath, a trove of early Colonial items such as musket flint, an iron stirrup, and utensils — including a pewter spoon with an English proof mark that dates it to the 1660s.
They ultimately also found evidence of several trash pits and brick foundations before they stopped digging.
“(Bob) wanted a coin and came back with a plantation,” Bill Savage said.
Among their discoveries were numerous Native American artifacts and a large number of fragments of rare, locally made 17th-century terra cotta Chesapeake pipes, along with fragments of European-manufactured white clay pipes, many with the maker’s mark showing on the stem.
They also found most of a ceramic teapot virtually identical to one depicted in Ivor Noel Hume’s book, ‘Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.’
“We’ve found things as small as bronze straight pins; we’ve got copper boat nails, Colonial flat buttons. We’ve got one piece of wampum…It’s so much that you can’t keep it all in your mind,” Bill Savage said.
In all, they recovered ten cases of artifacts over the two months, carefully documenting where each item was found.
It was at that point they decided they needed to seek professional help to explore and preserve the site, which one historian said could yield valuable information about daily life in the early years of the Virginia colony.
When historian Bernard L. Herman first saw the site in summer 2014, he recognized it as a potentially important source of knowledge about the period when English settlers and Native Americans first came into contact.
“The site could yield remarkable insights into early European and American Indian interactions,” said Herman, who is George B. Tindall DIstinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Chairman of the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The ceramics, in particular the tobacco pipes, are important, but for me the greatest potential for learning about everyday life and the exchange of traditions on the Eastern Shore is in the floral and faunal remains.”
The survival of so much organic material in such good condition offers a rare opportunity to learn more about how people then lived.
The Savages’ find “could really open an important conversation on the ecologies of early European settlement,” Herman said.
Additionally, if building footprints and the settlement’s overall layout can be determined, that information could give insight into who and what influenced the builders — whether it was practices from the lower Chesapeake, the upper Chesapeake, the lower Delmarva or even beyond.
“Ideally, the next steps would focus on processing and conserving the artifacts recovered, protecting the site, completing the documentary research and identifying the big questions that the site poses,” Herman said, noting that the Savages, with their love for Eastern Shore history, have “the patience and sensitivity to plan and undertake the next steps.”
Both brothers have a longstanding interest in history — Bob even majored in the subject in college — and their serendipitous discovery piqued that interest even more.
Among other outcomes, their research into the property’s history in county records revealed it once belonged to their ancestor, Richard Kellam, who patented the land from the King in 1662. The land changed hands over the years until the Savage family again came into possession of it when Bill and Bob’s father and uncle purchased it in the 1960s.
“Looking at it, a lot of what we’ve found is very probably family pieces,” Bill Savage said, adding, “Like I told Bob, maybe it was just time for the history to start resurfacing.”
If they hadn’t found the artifacts, they likely never would have researched the land title.
“We had no clue when we initially found it that it would be family pieces or potentially connected to the family,” he said.
Another outcome was a second business for the Savages — the large collection of clay pipes they found while excavating the site led to their decision to start a company manufacturing historically accurate corn cob and clay pipes.
The Old Dominion Pipe Company uses cobs left over from the Pungo Creek Mills operation for the corn cob pipes — they are one of only two companies in the United States manufacturing corn cob pipes.
The clay pipes the Savages began making last year in a small utility building on the farm are inspired by ones they uncovered in the field just yards away — some models are reproductions made using molds taken from the artifacts themselves.
The molds are made using modern-day technology — scanning the pipe fragments with a 3D scanner and “reassembling” them using computer-aided design, then making the mold itself using a 3D printer.
Because of the large number of fragments they’ve found, archaeologists have told them the pipes actually may have been manufactured on the farm during the Colonial era, lending the Savages’ new enterprise a unique historic aspect.
The brothers have a keen sense of responsibility for what they’ve found — and for what may still lie undiscovered.
“It’s like opening Pandora’s box,” said Bill Savage. “It’s great to find, but it’s also a burden to some extent, because now that you’ve opened the box, you’re responsible for all the contents of it — and what do you do?”
After almost three years, the brothers are eager for their story to reach a wider audience in hopes someone will help them explore and preserve the site.
Bill Savage asked anyone with ideas about who might assist them to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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