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Searching for hidden things Ayr Mount

Author: Joseph Beatty, PhD; CAHPT Director of Digital Experience

On the week of July 24, 2023, Classical American Homes Preservation Trust hosted two days of archaeological investigations at Ayr Mount. Faculty and graduate students from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill conducted ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys of two locations to learn more about features that are hidden beneath the surface.

GPR is very useful, because it allows archaeologists to carry out non-destructive investigations of a site. Without tools like this, we would need to remove significant amounts of soil to look for things that may (or may not) be present, a process that can be both time consuming and irreversible.

Dr. Jon Marcoux from the Clemson University Graduate Program in Historic Preservation led GPR examination of the Ayr Mount cemetery. The stone wall and iron fence around the cemetery are in need of repair, so the goal of this work was to see if there were any unmarked graves or features that might be impacted. Historical records suggest the likelihood of at least two burials for which we do not find headstones.

With this in mind, Dr. Marcoux and his students surveyed a perimeter starting six feet outside the walls and everything within. Preliminary results appear to confirm that there are a few unmarked burials inside the walls and none outside. They also identified areas of fill dirt along the north wall and noted what is likely some paving stones near the gate. This is encouraging data, as it gives us the information we need to proceed safely and respectfully with the stabilization and repair of the wall and fence.

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On the south side of the house, Dr. Mary Beth Fitts from UNC Research Laboratories of Archaeology directed a group of graduate students in search of Ayr Mount’s original support buildings. Historical records suggest that a kitchen, well, icehouse, and shed were located just to the southeast of the home. The team used GPR to survey an 11,000 square foot area where there was a high likelihood the buildings were located. Preliminary results from this investigation show evidence of structural remains consistent with the outbuildings we were looking to find.

These findings are important in several ways. First, this is the only tangible evidence we have so far about the workspaces that provided the daily necessities of food and water to the household. In addition, these spaces were built for and used exclusively by the enslaved people who provisioned the Kirkland family. Finally, buildings like kitchens were also dwelling places where enslaved people not only labored, but also lived. We know that this kind of information is vitally important to helping us provide the fullest interpretation of historic homes and their histories.

Ground penetrating radar is not wholly conclusive—it only tells you that something is there, not what that thing is. We cannot know for certain what is underground without digging down to see. Fortunately, GPR results can help archaeologists make targeted excavations that minimize disruption to a site while still revealing important discoveries.

As our university partners continue to analyze the data they collected, we expect to learn more about the many layers of Ayr Mount’s past.