Historic European Artifacts

The Europeans who lived in North Carolina from the 1500s through 1800s brought or made tools to serve many of the same functions as the tools and equipment we have in our homes and businesses today. They had kitchen tools, farming tools, personal items, clothing items, games, carriages and wagons, furniture, firearms, lamps, books, bottles, and hundreds of other manufactured and hand-made consumer goods.

Like the tools and artifacts made by precontact Native Americans, archaeologists describe European-American artifacts by classes or groups that reflect how we think they were used in the past. Some tools/artifacts have changed very little since their invention and can be easily identified and their role in people’s lives easily interpreted – think about buttons, coins, bottles, cups, plates, hoes, axes, pins, and pipes. Other artifacts are more difficult to identify and interpret because we do not use these kinds of items today, or because archaeologists find only small pieces of the original objects.

Archaeologist Stanley South developed a system for organizing historic period artifacts using eight functional groups. Using his system, archaeologists sort artifacts from a site into each group and then count them by group. These counts by group can be compared to similar data generated from other sites. South hoped this research method would help archaeologists interpret the role the objects played in the everyday life of the people who owned and used them. The functional groups remain a good way to organize artifacts recovered from sites occupied between 1650 and 1900 by Europeans, European Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans.

The functional groups include Kitchen artifacts, Architectural artifacts, Furniture related artifacts, Arms and Ammunition, Clothing related artifacts, Personal artifacts, Tobacco related artifacts, and Activities related items.

Kitchen artifacts are fragments of dishes, cutlery, and bottle glass. They tell us about the household goods people owned. By looking at the types of dishes – bowls, plates, cups – and the cooking pots and utensils, we can learn about the access people had to manufactured goods, their economic and social status, the kinds of foods they ate, how they cooked food, how they stored food, even their taste in dish patterns and colors.

Architectural artifacts include nails, window glass, roofing slate, shutter hooks, door latches, keys, bricks, paving stone, and plaster. These kinds of artifacts give us information about how homes were constructed, the dimensions of buildings, the quality of interior fittings, and how a building was used.

Furniture artifacts are rare on archeological sites because people carried off useful and valuable pieces. Most furniture is made from wood so it does not survive in the ground. When we find objects related to furniture they are usually the metal parts as small nails, tacks, and hinges used in the construction of the object or functional and decorative pieces such as drawer knobs, lock plates, and escutcheons.

Arms and Ammunition artifacts include bullets, shot, percussions caps, gun flints, and gun parts. All of these kinds of artifacts are quite common on historic sites since people often hunted to supplement the protein they got from farming animals.

Clothing artifacts include objects attached to clothing or used to make clothing. So artifacts such as buttons, buckles, beads, needles, pins, scissors, thimbles, snaps, rivets, fasteners, zippers, tuxedo studs, parts of umbrellas, hooks, and shoe parts all fall into this category.

Personal artifacts give us a glimpse into the more intimate aspects of people’s lives. Jewelry can express people’s individual tastes and desires. Toys and tobacco pipes represent moments of leisure time when people relax and enjoy family. Personal artifacts can include musical instruments, pocket knives, marbles, dolls, brooches, rings, keys, watch parts, snuff boxes, hair combs, razors, and tooth brushes.

Tobacco artifacts are limited primarily to pipes and pipe stems. Kaolin pipe stems and decorative pipe bowl fragments from pipes manufactured in Great Britain are very common on Colonial and antebellum sites from Florida to Maine.

Tools and Equipment artifacts is a huge category that includes a wide variety of tools. It includes farm implements like hoes, plows, shovels, saws, axes, harness parts, chains, transportation related objects like car part, buggy and carriage parts, hunting related objects such as fishing hooks and traps, turpentine industry related objects such as draw knives and turpentine cups. These artifacts tell archaeologists a lot about the activities that happened at a site.