BRUNSWICK COUNTY, N.C. – Hang around an archaeological dig long enough and you’ll hear the word "personal" tossed around frequently. Archaeologists don’t just judge artifacts by their age or condition but also by the story they tell.
Earlier this month during the 2011 Peace College Archaeological Field School at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson, students learned just how intimate a discovery can be.
On the second week of the four-week dig which ended Saturday, Peace students helped unearth a strawberry-shaped pendant from the Civil War era. Only a third of the pendant remained but the unique item gave students a peek into a different world.
"I really can’t put into words how amazing it is to hold something that no one has held or seen for over 200 years," Peace sophomore Kiara Cobb said. "It’s just amazing."
Of the dozens of items recovered during the dig, the pendant — which is likely made of copper alloy and has two layers of painted glass — is the rarest, according to Peace professor Vincent Melomo.
"Something that personal and significant — you might not find one like it ever (again)," Melomo said. "It’s something that meant something to somebody. It is a special find."
This year’s trip to Brunswick Town was the third edition of the Peace Field School and its second visit to the coastal site. The program gives students four lab credit hours as they learn how to sift through dirt, excavate with care, clean artifacts and record data effectively.
In the first field school held four years ago, students explored an old plantation in Louisburg. But organizers switched to the Brunswick Town site because it offered several different time periods in one location.
This year, students found not only Civil War artifacts but also items dating between 300 and 800 years old. The most notable of which were wine bottles, plates, stirrups, an 1863 penny, a canon spike, a pipe with a face carved in it and a confederate lieutenant’s button.
Due to its prestigious rank and the location where it was found, the confederate button can be traced back to just a handful of people.
"It’s almost like a treasure hunt," Peace student Cate Bolenbaugh said. "You’re looking for a piece of pottery or another piece of metal fragment. You don’t know what it is but you have a story behind it. We might not ever know the entire story but based on mapping and digging up things, we can sort of trace (it)."
In addition to uncovering artifacts, the students also helped clear away the brick walls of several Civil War barracks. As they uncovered the walls, they used their knowledge of the typical design and dimension of the buildings to carefully remove dirt without damaging the brick.
Hands-on opportunities like the field school are rare at smaller schools like Peace but offer students the experience they’ll need to pursue a career in archaeology.
With the field school now on their resume, students have a leg up when applying to graduate schools and job openings.
"Being here really makes it come to life and is invaluable to your own experience," Cobb said. "It’s more of a personal thing that the books can’t give you."