Somerset's untold history

Somerset plantation is a picture of antebellum grandeur. A big pale-yellow house, replete with cooling porches, English gardens, and brick walks, it sits solidly at the edge of a cypress-pillared lake in the hazy, marshy fringes of eastern North Carolina. Its magnificence is enhanced by an isolation and solitude it never enjoyed in its working life. The clean-swept rooms, furnished with shiny hulks of hardwood furniture from the past, are awash in the tangy but musty smell of cypress, elegantly free of cooking, eating, talking inhabitants, and glamorous in their melancholy serenity.

But this solitary splendor was no more permanent than Somerset's 19th-century prosperity. It ended this summer when Tom Funk and Peter Wood arrived with 20 archaeology students and dug up the lawn. Now, where there was a sunny, tousled meadow, there is a grid of 8-by-10-foot holes. From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day for five weeks, shovels flew, Duke University students sweated, and historians and archaeologists explained things. The long summer's nap of Somerset plantation has been disturbed.

This is as it should be. There never was a big empty meadow next to the big house when the plantation was working. It was chockablock slave cabins, populated by about 200 Africans. They also dug; among other things, they carved a canal 20 feet wide and six miles long out of the landscape. The canal became a county line. If it hadn't been for the work of Peter Wood and Tom Funk, that line would be the only trace left of an entire village of African workers.

Somerset plantation was a model of scientific slave agriculture. In 1786 a group of men calling themselves the Lake Company bought the swampland cheap and imported 100 slaves direct from Africa to canal it and clear fields in the cypress forests. It was early agribusiness. The canals watered the crops and were used for transportation; water-powered sawmills cut the cypress into lumber , and the slaves kept everything running in summer temperatures that get into the 90s and stay there.

Archaeology summer school students first found five 30-by-40-foot houses, each with two chimney bases shored up in the wet ground with cypress logs. They were probably slave dormitories and predate the sleepy mansion tourists wander through. They were built, along with the first ''big house,'' around 1800 by Josiah Collins, a wealthy local resident who bought out the Lake Company. The present big house was built, much grander and oriented toward the canals instead of the lake, in 1830. The slave dormitories stayed where they were, tipped to face the edge of the lake like the original mansion, until sometime later when they were dismantled.

All that remains of these are the foundations. The week before the program ended, the archaeologists found a row of smaller cabins, probably dating from the 1840s. These houses were being lived in till the 1920s. They were torn down for a WPA road in the 1930s, and this has since fallen into disuse. There are at least 10 more cabins to be found, says Dr. Wood.

In them, the student diggers have found nails, ceramic remains, and a west African trading bead. ''It's a spooky thing to be out there and find something that hasn't been seen or known about for so long,'' says Kim Sanborn, a Duke University graduate student in history.

The big house was restored in the 1950s by the state of North Carolina.The life and times of Somerset slaves might never have been known about if it hadn't been for changes in what is perceived as history. ''You stand at that picket fence'' in front of the field, says Dr. Wood, and ''you've got, on one side, a reconstruction of a huge house used by a dozen people. On the other side of the fence you've got several hundred people living for several generations, and there's nothing but a lawn and grown-up weeds and a trailer park in the distance. It's an emblem of our limited historical vision.''

There have been a handful of digs of slave sites, but most American archaeology has concentrated on prehistory and Indian remains. It was thought that the slaves brought no culture with them from Africa, so there was nothing interesting to dig up.In fact, archaeologists who found terra-cotta pottery the slaves made attributed it to American Indians.

Historical archaeologists have tended to do ''big-house archaeology,'' says Dr. Wood. ''That is,'' he says, ''you go to a big plantation house, you excavate it, and you basically are reinforcing a kind of genealogical view of history, which is saying, 'Yes, you're right, this is where the wonderful X family lived.' ''

''It's not hard to be in the vanguard of this research,'' says Tom Funk, though Dr. Wood points out there is an ongoing effort among scholars to look at black culture as part of the culture of the United States rather than as an aberration in Anglo culture.

Wood, author of a book called ''Black Majority'' about a plantation in South Carolina, is one of them. Blacks were the largest early non-English-speaking immigrant group, he points out. Five or six thousand Africans had been brought to North America by 1800 - ''before the word 'immigrant' had even been coined,'' he says. ''The interaction between African culture and Anglo culture is much older than the interaction between Jewish culture and gentile culture.'' Alex Haley helped trace this interaction in ''Roots.'' Mr. Haley found his ancestor Kunta Kinte had reached Annapolis, Md., in 1767, ''and that's just about average for Afro-Americans,'' Wood says, ''for what he called his 'furthest-back person.' Well, if you're a white American, your furthest-back person tends to be the late 19th century. . . . (Blacks) have been here a very long time, and the interaction has been going on for a very long time in both directions, with respect to speech, body language, food, clothing, cultural styles, all those things, particularly in the South.''

It has, however, been hard to document because the interaction started on isolated plantations, where it wasn't often written about. Besides, blacks were discouraged by white owners from practicing their African culture, so a lot of it went underground. But the assimilation went both ways. It has only been in the last 50 years that scholars began to look at the impact of African culture on Southern culture, he says.

The archaeological research sprang from similarly unpromising beginnings. Tom Funk, then state archaeologist of the historic sites of North Carolina, started with a large, empty field with no sign of a house. He knew there were slaves, and there was an old map which showed a line of houses, and a photograph of some sharecroppers who were the cabins' post-Civil War occupants. Funk, who does more research in the ground than in libraries and archives, went up in a crop duster last year after a heavy rain broke a long drought, and took infrared pictures of the site. Vegetation growing on top of buried bricks is weaker, and puts out less heat, and the infrared film can pick up the differences.

Funk and Wood counted the trees between the house and the cabins in the old photograph. They counted the trees on the lawn. They checked the map, which was not completely indisputable since it was designed to show the canals, not where their builders lived. They disputed. When the students came, they probed the whole area with long metal corkscrews, screwing them into the ground every foot and marking where they hit anything hard. They compiled a map of everything the probes hit, and studied it for patterns. They checked this against the old map and the photograph. Then they started to dig trenches.

''The first one hit brick,'' Funk says proudly. ''We found five buildings, and I've worked on many a site where we didn't find anything for six months. . . .''

Tom Funk has been digging since he got out of college. A music major, he had an anthropology professor who took the class out to dig in a Shaker cemetery. Funk liked the camaraderie, and when he graduated and couldn't get any work in music, he called the professor and got a job digging at George Washington's birthplace. The archaeologist there taught him ''everything I needed to know about field work,'' and someone he met there heard his reputation as a ''good field man'' and told him to go to the University of Virginia, so he could get an MA degree and run their field school. He recently resigned from his job as state archaeologist for the historic sites of North Carolina but is still ''the only archaeologist I know of in this country that plays the trumpet.''

Funk and Wood are an odd couple. Wood is tall, soft-spoken, and heavyset. He looks like the ''people's historian'' he is, wearing a baseball cap the day we drove to the plantation. He has a quiet voice and, though he uses the idiom of his students (''neat'' and ''you know?''), he has a scholar's discerning squint. Funk is short, jolly, curly haired, and - for all his experience searching, digging, and eluding poisonous snakes and the aggressive toad-fish that lurk around sunken North Carolina antiquities - he comes off like a college boy at a frat party.But they were both intent on their task. When interviewed this spring , they stood on the lawn as squirrels romped through the grass, flies began to bite, and temperatures began to climb, and forgot about the interviewer. They held up the old photograph and argued about which trees had fallen down.

They weren't just looking for cabins, they were hoping to somehow dig up - in history as well as in the dirt - the areas where the two cultures, black and white, interacted.

''I think that what's happened out of a decade of new interest in black studies is that people learned enough so that they realize they really can't separate these groups ethnically,'' says Wood. Just looking at slave cabins would give just as lopsided a view of the plantation as studying only the isolated big house, he says. But a plantation was a complex social, cultural, and economic entity. It represented a combination of voluntary and involuntary labor. It was a self-sufficient, closed economic unit that nonetheless traded with England. ''Certainly the other thing is that it's an interrelationship between very few whites and very many blacks,'' says Wood. ''We all have uncertain views about whether that's really neat or really strange or really bad.''

Archaeology, says Funk, will help in this highly subjective area where not much was written down. ''That's where archaeological work can make its biggest impact. . . . I think a lot of times history is sort of subjective when it's written or observed, and we can go in and objectivize it.'' In this case, history has been subjectively ignored.

''To me, we're at the very bottom of a spiral,'' said Peter Wood last spring as we sat in the tourist information building by the plantation house after looking at slides. There were no tourists that afternoon, only a lone hiker in a bandanna and jeans who wandered past the plantation house and into the woods. The afternoon was quiet with a balmy breezes ruffling the as yet undug lawn. But Wood and Funk were excited. The question of where to dig had raised other questions, and the tourist booth was bristling with the tension of discoveries yet to be made.

''We know so little, we don't even realize how little we know.'' said Wood. ''Yet, (you can) work your way up out of that spiral with a significant artifact or a significant insight. . . .''

''If we can take these artifacts that we find out there and give them cultural meaning from a black historical point of view and a black cultural point of view, then we've really got something,'' Funk said, leaning back in his chair as the slide projector cooled after we looked at the old map. But at the moment, ''We don't have nothin' for artifacts. We don't have much for understanding how they were used or who used them or what the context of the situation was. . . So I think not only the artifacts, the way we can create and generate an understanding of life from them is what we have ahead of us. And if we can do that, boy, I think we've really got it made.''

Wood had high hopes for his students, who were ''coming with a different cultural perspective. To them it's no big deal to be excavating slave cabins. That's cool, that's part of Southern history, and they've been trained up on a generation of books'' that included more about black history. '' 'Roots' got high ratings when they were in high school.''

The students turned out to be an unusually enthusiastic crew. Many of the them were history majors, working with objects instead of documents for the first time. Probably because of their enthusiasm, they got frustrated. Though the evidence of slave life was tangible, its meaning eluded them. ''It's very hard to get the bigger picture,'' Stuart Jones, a senior at Duke, said later as the dig progressed. ''We haven't pulled out anything earth-shattering.'' He is teaching history this fall, and he wanted to know what it all meant. ''I probably won't know till long after we're done.''

Funk got frustrated with the students. ''They think they're going to answer all their questions in five weeks,'' he said, ''but it'll probably take eight to 10 years. The Collins plantation is hard to perceive. They get so close, but they're still so far away'' from knowing what the clues add up to. ''It's a hard thing to resolve.'' The west African trading bead, Stuart Jones said, ''could have been dropped by a hippy in 1965.''

''Artifacts are just one piece of the puzzle,'' Funk explained. ''If you can see [the artifact] in its context, and all the people around that would have used it, with some literature that describes how those people at that time period felt about it, all of a sudden, that artifact becomes a living thing, in the sense that it has meaning, other than an object.''

Maybe it was the frustration that made it happen. Maybe it was the combination of Wood and Funk's unique tracking talents. Or maybe it was the students with their ''Roots''-educated curiosity. Whatever it was, they made a remarkable discovery the last week of summer school. As they dug beyond the row of double fireplaces, they found a single fireplace. That meant a smaller house, built after the slaves were first imported, when they had families. They dug again, and found a second single fireplace.After three or four, they measured the distance between the fireplaces, since they figured the houses were regular, uniform dwellings put up by the Collinses at one time.

Sure enough, they found another fireplace, or as Funk said in a telephone interview, ''You'd just pull the [measuring] tape, put in the probe, and bonk! another chimney base.'' Several bonks and two afternoons later, they had unearthed 23 single-family slave cabins. And they knew exactly who lived in them. A student dispatched to Raleigh to study the the Collins papers found an inventory of slaves, listing them by which house they were in. ''For the first time we're coming close to linking up specific slave families with the dwellings in which they lived! We're excited,'' Peter Wood reported by postcard.Two Collins boys and a slave boy drowned in the canal in 1843. Wood and Funk now know that the slave's name was Zachariah, and that a slave from the plantation next door found them. They know that the slave's big sister named her next child after Zachariah. And they know which cabin they lived in. All of this gives them what they were looking for - not just a view of where the slaves lived, but a sense of what it was like, and what the blacks and whites made of each other.

And so they inch up the spiral, bit by bit.

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