Tag Archives: history

A Courthouse for All Ages

The Historic 1909 Randolph County Courthouse

The Historic Randolph County Courthouse at 145 Worth Street in Asheboro formally reopened for business on 19 July 2011 with a private reception and a public open house, 102 years to the day after the very first session was held within its walls.

According to a history of the courthouse written by local attorney and historian Lowell McKay “Mac” Whatley, the courthouse design mixes “nineteenth-century Victorianism with the motifs of American Beaux-Arts classicism. The brick facades of the building rise from a roughly-hewn granite base. Round arched windows on each side define the courtroom on the second floor level; the windows of the southern (Worth Street) façade feature elaborate molded terra lintels in a variety of shapes and sizes. The complex textures of materials such as tile, rough granite, sandstone, brick, wood and metal are combined with bold ornamental shapes to create the active, highly plastic surface of the building.”

Glenola Brick Works supplied around one million bricks for the project, most of which are not visible. The yellow hydraulic-pressed “Washington” exterior face bricks, all 700,000 of them, were shipped from Ohio at a cost of $70 per thousand.

The courthouse was originally completed in 1909 for only $34,000. It was the seventh county courthouse, but the first at that location. Three previous courthouses had been at the corner of Salisbury and Main streets, but that area ceased to be the focal point of Asheboro with the coming of the railroad in 1889.

The decision to build a new courthouse was made in 1907 by Commissioners J.W. Cox, H.G. Lassiter and Chairman Arch N. Bulla of Randleman. At the time, they were meeting in the 6th Randolph County Courthouse built in 1839 at the intersection of Salisbury and Main Streets in Asheboro. That brick structure had been built by construction superintendent and future N.C. Governor Jonathan Worth; it was expanded in 1876. Rather than hire an architect to design and build a completely new courthouse, the commissioners paid $300 to the Charlotte firm of Wheeler, Runge and Dickey for copies of the plans and specifications of their Iredell County Courthouse design. Oliver D. Wheeler and his various partners would ultimately go on to build another eight courthouses that were similar or identical to Randolph’s. Of those, six remain in existence today.

The first two courthouses were located somewhere in the vicinity of what is today New Market, north of Randleman. The third courthouse, and the first in Asheboro, was on two acres of land along Abram’s Creek. The eighth and current courthouse is located next door.

Over the past few years the 1909 courthouse undergone extensive renovation, restoration and rehabilitation. Most of the work was done by Randolph County building inspectors, many of whom are master craftsmen, which kept costs low and allowed the inspectors to continue working even after county construction levels fell to record lows during the Great Recession, said County Manager Richard Wells.

Historic courtrrom, restored

The focal point of the restoration was the second floor courtroom and gallery, now the location of County Commissioners’ meetings. An overhaul of the courtroom in the early 1960s resulted in a Scandinavian Modern style, complete with wood paneling and benches, that was not at all in keeping with the original design. Also at that time, the ceiling was dropped to allow for the installation of an air conditioning system. During the more recent restoration, workers unbricked windows, recreated paneled doors and restored as much as the original pressed tin ceiling as possible, including the ceiling over the gallery that overlooks the courtroom; what tin could not be restored was ordered from a company that specializes in tin tiles, and may actually be the company from which the original ceiling tiles were ordered. Even the desk for the County Commissioners was constructed, not ordered.

Because the room was once a courtroom, the state seal was placed at a spot on the wall above the raised platform where the presiding judge was seated. During the renovations, workers discovered it could not be easily removed from the wall above. Wanting to incorporate something of the county into the room, Asheboro-based artist Susan Harrell was commissioned to create a special county seal just for the historic courthouse. It was placed on the wall directly opposite the state seal and is visible when sitting at the commissioners desk on the platform.

The courthouse was the first historic landmark recommended by the Randolph County Historic Landmark Preservation Commission, formed in 2008, and its ground floor is currently home to the Randolph County Economic Development Corporation and Heart of N.C. Visitors Bureau.

The second floor historic courtroom can be used for public meetings.

Information based on histories of the courthouse written and compiled by Mac Whatley.

19th Century Working Women (as told by Rebecca Harding Davis)

In the young and industrializing United States, the effects of Republican Motherhood and what Jeanne Boydston termed the “pastoralization of housework” led to a new ideology among the emerging idle middle class. Broadly, this class saw itself as prosperous and virtuous; it saw the working classes, and working women in particular, as promiscuous at best and wicked at worst. Rebecca Harding Davis, herself a member of the middle class, used fiction to attempt to combat this stereotype and create empathy between the classes by introducing a working woman named Deborah in Life in the Iron-Mills. However, while Davis’ portrayal of Deborah was a short-term success, it ultimately failed because it reinforced the existing gender system.

Deborah is presented as the victimized working woman instead of the depraved and promiscuous slut. Both stereotypes are middle class creations, but Davis chose one over the other to criticize class inequalities and prejudice toward immigrants. Accordingly, Deborah is described as a new immigrant worn beyond her years, a hunchback and loyal and caring to a fault. Davis knew that in order for a middle class woman to empathize with her character, said character had to be the exact opposite of what the reader expected. Deborah is thus shown in a positive light — while the other women who work at the mills go off to party and drink, Deborah goes home to tend to her family, returning to the mills to deliver dinner to her brother. This similarity allowed middle class readers to view Deborah as human, creating a sense of empathy for those who are oppressed only by a capitalist system and not through any cause of nature.

Most Western ideological systems exist only by binary oppositions and the nineteenth-century gender system was no exception. In order to prove domestic bliss as a wife and mother was the ideal, the system needed something to define itself against. Under this ideology, women were, as Boydston wrote, “ill-equipped to venture into the world of nineteenth-century business”; if wives and mothers who kept to their houses were the ideal, then women who worked outside of the home were somehow abnormal. They were even considered not to be women because they displayed traits more commonly reserved for men, the “breadwinners” who dwelt in the duplicitous and cunning outside world. Women who sought employment outside the home were symbolic threats to this concept of manhood and male authority.

Reality however, as Davis knew, was very different; through Deborah, she presents a woman who had theoretical possibility to be any woman. Despite this, however, Deborah lives up to this idealized standard; she is the “victimized heroine” injected with a shot of harsh reality, a way for her to pacify her middle class readers while still managing to convey her message about class inequality. Davis exacerbates this implicit claim by redeeming Deborah in the end, showing her audience that all the working woman lacks to be live up to the middle class standard of womanhood is material goods. By humanizing Deborah, and by extension working women in general, she sets up the middle class standard as the norm.

Was this Davis’ intention? Possibly. Davis may have redeemed Deborah as form of polite and discreet mockery. It seems more likely, though, that Deborah’s redemption is another aspect added to create empathy — and in this Davis succeeded.

However, Davis was a middle class woman representing a working class woman; her representation was slightly off kilter from the ways in which working class women presented themselves. Fanny Fern was much more straightforward, her style blunt and succinct. She is angry, not philosophical. Nor does she merely want to invoke pity. Instead, Fern wanted to force the “rose colored glasses of ideology” from the faces of the middle class. These women, she argued, are laborers and they are still women.

Fern refused to draw a line between womanhood and labor. Instead, she and others posited that the “romance of labor” was a fiction and the girls of Lowell Mills, who received so much attention, were not so much laborers in hard industry but country girls of New England. Middle class society did not wish to see reality and so created a fiction that worked within their ideology. It was easier to see working women as women who could not or would not keep to their homes, instead of women working to support themselves or their families.

To give Davis her due, she did strip away the fiction to show the true horror and horrendous necessity of factory life. Unfortunately, she maintained the romance of labor via her ending. Any working woman would have known that intervention by a kindly Quaker was unlikely; within the realm of possibility, but highly improbable. Davis’ happy ending is not realistic, but it did appeal to her readers. Deborah’s constant and selfless suffering is rewarded with an elevation, via material goods, to the middle class through the intervention of a well-meaning middle class woman. It may have been a cry to the public to act, to alleviate the conditions of people working in the mills, but it ultimately reinforced middle class hegemony.

Female Figurines and a Cult of the Great Goddess in Prehistoric Europe (Part I)

Goddess. Fertility Statue. Art. All of these are designations that have been applied by various scholars to the graven and painted prehistoric images of women. Although any interpretation is conjecture based upon a particular reading of the material and culture, the most readily given label (and the one most readily contested) is that of “goddess” or fertility image, as evinced by the frequent naming of these statues as a Venus. Identifying and locating the true purpose of these figurines has since nearly become a study unto itself, with scholars and researchers from various disciplines proposing and negating hypotheses and theories. However, if these symbols are to be correctly understood then they must be examined in the context in which they once operated and not at a general level.

The essential problem with this type of analysis is the simple fact that their culture is still not fully understood. In light of this dilemma, to say that there was once a universal cult of a Great Goddess is not quite prudent, but nor is it altogether untrue. However, given the early prominence of goddesses in Mediterranean pantheons, it seems likely that there were several goddess traditions (perhaps with a common genesis) stretching back into prehistory that emerged as the social view of women altered in tandem with a cosmological shift during the early Neolithic.

Marija Gimbutas once wrote that the most obvious place to seek the origin of the Great Goddess would be at the dawn of agriculture.i How, then, to explain the proliferation of female figurines that date to the Paleolithic?

One possible answer may lie in the sheer volume of figures and traits they share, such as heavily emphasized bellies, breasts and buttocks, featureless faces and tapering legs that seem to have no feet. Although problematic, it can be generalized that the figurines from the Paleolithic era meant something, as these images appear in various styles and positions for over thirty thousand years. Again, to ascribe to them any type of power is conjecture, but the fact remains that they do proliferate all over Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Laussel Venus
The Laussel Venus (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

One example from the Upper Paleolithic is the Laussel Venus, a limestone relief found carved over a cave that retained traces of red ocher. The figure is eighteen inches tall with one hand on her protruding stomach while the other is upraised and holds a bull horn or crescent.ii Many scholars believe this shelter to have been a place of ritual, and the very nature of the figure, head slightly inclined towards the horns/moon, may have been meant to communicate something to the prehistoric peoples. The hand of the Laussel Venus that rests on her corpulent belly has “fingers pointing toward her vulva”iii which could indicate a relationship to the horns, and all of the symbols could point to one particular meaning.

Gimbutas and others may be right to assume this was a ritual area,iv but given the location of the cave during the Upper Paleolithic the shelter may have been not a place of sacred seclusion, but one where menstruating women could congregate away from the other members of their group. Given that these people were hunter-gatherers they would have been closely attuned to the seasons and would have recognized that monthly bleeding was attuned to specific phases of the moon, especially since numerous modern studies have shown that the menstrual cycles of women who live in close proximity will synchronize.

Thus the Laussel and other figurines of this type may have been “menstruants” not only because such a shelter would have been a safe locale for bleeding women, but also because the lack of detailing on certain areas of the figures are consistent with later menstrual taboos. Indeed, such taboos decreed that menstruating women “could not touch anything [and] mouth, eyes and hair all came to exude ominous powers.”v Even the large bellies could be an exaggerated representation of abdominal bloating, and red ocher may not have symbolized a spiritual connection so much as it alluded to blood.

Another possibility as to the origin and meaning of Paleolithic figurines is a further form of self-representation, but one of pregnancy rather than menstruation. This theory purports that the figurines were created by women who were pregnant and that the distorted body shape is the result of an optical illusion.vi Indeed, if a pregnant, average-size modern woman looks down at her body, she finds a “strongly foreshortened view of the upper frontal thorax and abdomen”vii and that her breasts loom large. Furthermore, if the same woman looks over her shoulder and under her arm to see her backside, what she sees is remarkably similar to the Paleolithic figurines.

Even the tapering legs and small to nonexistent feet make sense in this context, as a pregnant woman has difficulty seeing the farthest parts of her body. The misrepresentation of height and width is thus the result of a woman’s own vision of her anatomy,viii which means even stylistic variations can be explained by cultural differences in self-examination.

However, if this theory is accurate then we must recognize the cognitive autonomy of these prehistoric women in documenting and preserving this state of being. This, then, begs the question — why? It seems likely that if these figurines were made by women during various stages of pregnancy, they had a very pragmatic purpose as obstetrical aids, models that allow gestation time to be calculated or to ensure reproductive success. Either way, the function of these figurines is practical and grounded, not spiritual.

The spiritual potential of the figurines only arise with a cosmological shift as the Old Stone Age gave way to the Neolithic. This shift was part of a larger, more major shift that occured all over Europe, including the Mediterranean, over the course of generations. Gordon Childe was the first to coin the term “agricultural revolution” and as much the transition to the early forms of horticulture and agriculture took several generations, so did the cosmological shift. As the modern growth of a goddess-oriented cosmology, born during the critical years of the Women’s Movement,ix has shown, any significant social change can bring about a change in ideology and belief systems. To assume that such human adaptability did not exist in prehistory is ludicrous — it seems more likely that as human manipulation and exploitation continued to evolve, so did their understanding of natural processes.

During this time when social changes were occurring at ever increasing intervals, the female figurines became increasingly more complex and detailed, with incising, molding and carving more the norm than the exception. This may have been the result of more time availability or the specialization of the craft within a set group, but there may also be another underlying reason. Women were still gatherers in the Neolithic Period, but were also beginning to cultivate plants. This type of control over the reproduction of the land may have, over the course of generations, led to questions about human reproduction. Where once the ability to conceive and bear another person may have been considered an innate female power, the coming of agriculture, animal domestication and human control over an admittedly limited amount of natural forces could have made Neolithic people question their world.

If they could control what the earth would yield, was there then something that controlled them?

[Bookish Note: Part II, which examines cosmology shifts and the figurines as religious or spiritual artifacts, will be posted in two weeks.]


iGimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess.Harper & Row: New York, 1989. 141.
iiTeubal, Savina J. “The Rise and Fall of Female Reproductive Control as Seen through Images of Women.” Women and Goddess Traditions: In Antiquity and Today. Ed. Karen L. King. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1997. 285.
iiiTeubal, “Rise and Fall,” 286.
ivGimbutas, Language, 141-142.
vTeubal, 287.
viMcCoid, Catherine Hedge & LeRoy D. McDermott. “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic.” American Anthropologist, June 1996. 319-326.
viiMcCoid & McDermott.
viiiMcCoid & McDermott.
ixChrist, Carol P. Rebirth of the Goddess. Routledge: New York, 1997. 3.


explaining probate inventories

Probate estate inventories, such as Martha Allen’s from Amanuensis Monday (6 December) are the legal record of person’s belongings made after their death; it was standard practice in many places to catalogue the deceased’s effects room-by-room during the late eighteenth and nineteenth-century, mostly to ensure an estate could cover its debts. As vernacular documents generated by the deceased’s own peers, Randolph County estate inventories provide a virtual snapshot of life in another time. These inventories can be used to theorize the way a person lived, what types of goods s/he owned and how household spaces were used.

However, using probate inventories is not always easy. While these records provide a plausible picture of how life was conducted at the time, as a primary resource they have problems that must be considered and taken into account. Such problems include a lack of standardised spelling and word usage (less common after about 1830) and “grouping” — the lumping together of items under one heading that might have been separate. For example, an inventory could list all bedding, curtains and other fabrics by each individual piece (or provide numbers for particular types, e.g., six sheets) or it could lump or group everything in a room together under the heading of “linen” or “fabric.” Martha Allen’s inventory does both; it lists “2 pitchers” but, elsewhere, lists only “carpets.” The plural indicates the presence of at least two carpets, but there could have been more.

Terminology can also be a problem. Sometimes it’s impossible to know what the appraiser meant because the word has come to have several diverse meanings.i “Tricks,” “box of tricks” and “box of contents” are entries that appear frequently in several Randolph County inventories, including Martha’s. Found in parlours, kitchens, bedrooms and in barns these are complete unknowns — the meaning has been lost. Another such word is “lot”; used in reference to books, food stuffs and linens, it obviously referred to a specific number but that number is unknown.ii Martha’s inventory has a “lot” of books and a “lot” of corn, but we have no way of knowing how many or how much that was. Did the term have a different meaning when applied to different items? Or did it just refer to multiples of an item in a given location?

Another problem with using inventories is the absence of expected items. This may or may not reflect ownership of the potential item in question; often, items that were already willed or part of other legacies, such as a widow’s thirds, were omitted by appraisers. Drawing conclusions about living standards and consumerism based on an absence — without thoroughly analysing the possible reasons for that absence — will result in skewed findings. Also, female clothing and accessories such as jewellery and shoes are almost never inventoried; as the only personal goods a woman could legally own after marriage, these would be excluded from her husband’s probate inventory.iii However, clothing and accessories were often handed down along female lines, these items could have been bequeathed before death and thus not subject to probate — hence their absence from Martha’s inventory.

Another important thing to remember when dealing with absences in probate records is the possibility of intentional concealment.iv Many inventories from Randolph County, although clearly made by an appraiser who surveyed the interior of the deceased’s home, record that the items listed were those “brought forward.” This may be tradition, or legalese, but it is certainly possible some household items not previously bequeathed were concealed or removed prior to inventory. Again, this could be the reason for the lack of bedding in Martha’s inventory.

Inventories also have absences due to the season in which they were made. Certain crops and tools specific to the sowing or harvesting of those crops likely fluctuated within households depending on the season.v It would be unlikely, for example, to find corn listed on an inventory taken in mid-June or to find dried meat listed in October, as corn was usually harvested in September and autumn was prime hunting and slaughtering season.

Beyond all this, Randolph County’s probate inventories also present a unique and somewhat frustrating challenge – only approximately one out of every thirty pre-1868 inventories is explicitly room-based. This lack of room-based inventories, however, does not constitute a complete and total loss in understanding the source material. A more in-depth survey of several inventories, where the contents are simply listed in straight columns without room designations, has resulted in the discovery of a recurring pattern of item listing that repeats over time and throughout these records. Observable as early as the 1790s and as late as the 1860s, this pattern is found in nine out of every ten inventories that are not explicitly room-based. The number of inventories that imply room function increases over time, whereas the number of explicitly room defined inventories decreases.

These implicitly room-based inventories typically begin with a catalogue of stock, tools and accoutrements (such as saws, hoes, saddles, etc.) and crops before moving on to the interior items. In almost every case the interior inventory begins in the kitchen before moving into other rooms on the same level, usually the dining room or parlour (or what can be construed from its contents as a “best space” for any refined items the deceased may have owned), with a change in room noted by a line break or, in some cases, with a small underscore. In this type of inventory, the movement of the appraiser from one room to the next can be noted by the change in the goods that are noted – from pots and pans, pantry and foodstuffs and ovens to “parlour chairs” and tea tables to bedsteads and featherbeds. It is thru an evaluation of objects, in conjunction with notations in the inventory itself, that these inventories can be seen as implicitly room-based and thus used to understand spatial use in Randolph County.

So how does all this relate to Martha Allen’s inventory? It serves as jumping off point for understanding what we see and don’t see. Also, by examining her husband’s inventory, we can see if there was a difference between her use of household space as a wife and her use of the same space as a widow. When John Allen died in 1858, his estate included, among other things, three featherbeds and bedsteads, three tables, eight chairs, a wardrobe, two chests, a trunk, two smoothing irons, seventeen pounds of iron, two sets of smithing tools, two plows, a hoe, a scythe, ten books, ten “stands of bees,” sixteen sheep and four bushels of wheat. Moreover, the arrangement of his household conformed to the prevailing notions about formal front space with all production-related items (pots, pans, churn, loom, spinning wheel, etc.) in a separate area of the house.

After those goods were auctioned, his wife, Martha, received only one book, two smoothing irons, a table, a chair, a cupboard, trunk and chest in addition to a year’s worth of foodstuffs, the now empty house and land. From the records, it appears that the money collected from the auction went towards his debts.

Eight years later, however, Martha’s inventory reveals quite a bit more — but also has some glaring absences such as bedding and bedsteads. She had a table with multiple chairs, five “lots” of books and a spinning wheel, tub, several baskets and a “box of contents.”vii The four columns from her inventory could represent four rooms … or not. Either way, based on the observable pattern of Randolph inventories being implicitly room-based, it appears Martha was combining her living areas. For an older widow, this makes practical sense. If so, her decision to relocate part of her household production appears to have been a conscious decision, but could also have been due to wartime interruptions of the traditional routine.

As for that elusive bedding … their absence does not mean Martha did not have any. As with any clothes, shoes, jewelry or other accessories, she may have bequeathed those items to others in her will. However, given that she died only a year after the end of the Civil War, she may have sold her bedstead to help pay back taxes or put food on the table. It’s also possible her bedding was in the chest, or included among the “box of contents.”

iBenes, Peter, “Introduction,” Early American Probate Records, Ed Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University, 1987), 11.

ii Inventory of Mr John Dunbar, 1863.

iii Sweeney, Kevin M, “Using Tax Lists to Detect Biases in Probate Inventories,” Early American Probate Inventories, Ed Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University Press, 1989) 37-38.

iv Benes, “Introduction,” 14.

v Hawley, Anna L, “The Meaning of Absence,” Early American Probate Inventories, Ed Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University Press, 1989), 25-26.

vi Inventory and Will of Mr John Allen, 1858. John Allen Papers, Randolph County Probate Records, North Carolina Division of Archives and History.

vii Inventory and Will of Mrs Martha Allen, 1866. Martha Allen Papers, Randolph County Probate Records, North Carolina Division of Archives and History.

Amanuensis Monday: The Probate Inventory of Martha Allen

[Amanuensis — noun — pl. amanuenses — from Latin āmanuēnsis (“secretary”), from ab + manus, “by hand”

  1. One employed to take dictation or copy manuscripts
  2. A clerk, secretary, stenographer or scribe.

Amanuensis Monday” is a term used by geneabloggers who type and post letters, wills, notes and other documents that were written by hand. The Bookish Miss is somewhat bereft of letters at this time, but has plenty of probate inventories … which are, in their own way, just as fascinating.]

State of North Carolina, Randolph County

An inventory of the personal property of Martha Allen, dec’d, which came in to the hands of Wm. Allen, administrator.

Cash on hand … Seventy dollar, 70

Silas Hodson Book AL Available… 24.40

Da. H B Allen … 10.00

List of Sale Maid 27th November 1866

1 Wash Pot … 55

1 Pair Stullyards … 25

2 Falls Colter … 25

1 Pot Rack … 36

1 Matoch … 25

2 Plowirons … 10

1 Shovel & Broms … 30

2 Sickles & Shovel … 15

2 Chisels & finchers … 25

2 hammers & pin … 15

2 Lasts … 16

Shoe tools … 35

1 grind stone … 40

1 fr dogirons … 16

1 Meal tub … 05

1 Lard tub … 76

2 Begs & tub barel … 15

1 Barel & box … 05

2 Jars & tub … 05

1 DH … 25

1 sider barrel … 30

chains … 65

fan & spools … 25

1 Iron shovel … 15


1 Box of Contents … 20

1 Churn … 07

1 Wheel & tub … 30

1 half gallon … 06

1 Basket … 21

2 Hogshead … 46

3 Bushels of wheat … 7.95

Do … 7.98

Do … 7.98

Do five bushels ¼ … 13.92

Beans … .37½

2 Hogshead … .61

1 side sadle … .42

1 Lot of lether … .30

1 Flax wheel … .81

1 Fring frang fan … .17

1 jar … .40

1 jar and crock … .15

1 jar & froheher [sp?] … .15

1 Coffy mill … .13

1 Shugar bole … .22

boles and quarts … .18

2 handle sheks … .71

Do … .10


2 Pitchers … .05

1 Shugar bole … .10

1 pepper box … .01

1 pewter dish … .63½

3 pewter spoons … .10

2 tin pans & pewter dish … .70½

2 Dishes … .04

2 Cups and sasers … .04

1 Dish & iel [sp?] … .11

1 Bottle and pepper Lion … .40½

1 Pitcher & bottles … .05

1 Dish puter … .30

1 Lot of bottles … .08

1 Pitcher … .15

1 Can … .01

1 Lot of bottles … .05

1 Morter … .05

2 Baskets … .16

Do … .05

1 Lot of books … .07

2 Books … .05

1 Lot books … .05

2 Chares … .30

Do … .49

Do … .30

1 babbord [sp?] … 14.50

1 Clock … 2.80

1 table … 3.20

1 Chest … 3.00

1 hackle … 1.55

1 Atlas … .32

2 Mugs … .12


1 slay … .05

slay & gear … .12

gear … .11

Slay & gear … .61

Do … .20

Carpets … .30

1 table … .10

1 Lot of corn … .82½

1 Lot of Corn … 6.00

1 Do … 5.57½

1 Par swarpen bars … .36

1 Lot of Books … 3.18

1 lot of short corn … .81

1 Chesle … .37½

1 Box … .06

1 Basket … .20

1 Lot of oats … 4.45

Do … 4.00

Do … 2.40

1 Fork … .56

1 Box … .50

1 Barel … .05







Wm. Allen, Admn

The text of Martha Allen’s probate inventory has been faithfully reproduced, including spelling and grammatical errors and other inconsistencies with capitalization and use of decimals. However, the Bookish Miss is human and errors are possible.

Text obscured by smeared ink or otherwise illegible is noted by [sp?].

Inventory from the North Carolina State Archives

Archaeology’s Ultimate Purpose

Recreated row house in Jamestown

The rise in popularity of the History Channel and other similar programs on other channels and networks recently led Bookish Miss to pondering how important the fine details are to the general populace’s understanding of history.

While watching a program on ancient Pompeii, I was nodding along to everything being said; then the narrator stopped and I frowned. But, I thought, what about … ? They didn’t talk about …

The devil is in the details, right?

Well, not always, I was reminded. This led me to my bookshelf, specifically to Stephen Bertman’s Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology — which is not, at first glance, a scholarly book. Even at second glance, its place on any reading list likely appears dubious at best; it is, after all, a compilation of several short sketches about people. In fact, Bertman devotes most of his work to concisely and succinctly reconstructing and understanding the lives of ancient and not-so-ancient people. Accordingly, since the book is about the individual lives of people, there is not much by way of technical details, extensive descriptions of artifacts or discussions relating a particular item to a particular site, feature, zone or level.

Like most of those popular history programs, that’s not the point. The best example of Bertman’s intent is in the final chapter, “Portrait of Pocahontas.” He begins by recalling the myth, then delves into history to detail the ships that sailed for what would become Virginia, including information on their passengers and cargo. There is also discussion regarding the English in Jamestown; he writes “between best of friends and worst of enemies lies the story of Jamestown and the Native Americans … a story written in village campfires long cold and the embers of cottage timbers set ablaze.”

Archaeology is invaluable; some records do remain from this time and the years that followed, but material remains are a viable and much needed resource because they allow us to see a bigger picture. Accordingly, Bertman details the various items recovered and places them in the context in which they are of the most importance — what the final accumulation tells us about their lives.

One of Bertman’s examples is the colonists’ fear of both the known and unknown. He explains this by discussing the sheer volume of weapons uncovered, including crossbows, cutlasses, rapiers and other swords, caltrop (a metal object with four sharp points) as well as muskets, pistols, bullet molds, bandoliers (to hold gunpowder) and grapeshot for a cannon. Other artifacts are also discussed, including how their interpretation illustrates how these people lived from day to day.

For most scholars who skipped or dismissed Bertman’s prologue, introduction, conclusion and epilogue, the most obvious problem with this book is its lack of contextual detail with respect to the artifacts. He does not seek to investigate a certain site or perform a particular test on any given artifact in order to understand a minute part of a culture, but rather he draws on the work of several archaeologists and other scholars to put together a picture of how our antecedents may have lived. Indeed, he is very plain in the beginning and the end — his book was written to be an easily accessible look at the broader swath of history, made fuller by archaeology, and he refuses to allow technical details to weigh down his words. He does provide endnotes, however, for that exact purpose.

However, it is important to the larger discussion about the value of archaeology, history and the use of material culture. What Bertman did nearly 25 years ago is precisely what those history shows aim to do today. Outreach archaeology, public history — it all boils down to collecting information, analyzing it, making the appropriate connections and disseminating it to the public in a palatable format.

This is important and those “buts” don’t always matter. If we don’t do it, someone else (Disney anyone?) will.

Bertman’s own words put it best:

“It is easy for modern archaeologists, surrounded by so many quantitative techniques, to be dazzled into forgetting their qualitative mission. Their purpose is and always should be a fundamentally human one: to discover and narrate with honesty and compassion the story of lives once lived. The archaeologist’s duty is to keep faith with the ghosts, to serve as a medium for those who no longer have voices of their own.”

Bertman currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University in Missouri.

Bertman, Stephen. Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology. Tarcher/St.Martin’s Press, 1986.