In late September 2014, the news spread from the Ephrata Tract, the land in Nazareth Pennsylvania where Moravians first settled in the 1700s: the First House of Nazareth had been discovered! The announcement received national attention, including a mention in Archaeology magazine.
The structure, erected in 1740, stood between the Whitefield House and the Gray Cottage on the site of the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth. Demolished sometime before 1864, the building has been visible for the past century and a half only in a few surviving sketches and as a small mark on early maps of Nazareth. A small marker, set into the turf and overlooked by many visitors, quietly announced the existence of the vanished structure. But now, by digging below the surface, the First House came into focus. Archaeologists located the First House’s foundation and traces of the mortar used in 1740 to bind stone to stone.
A plan to uncover history
The September discovery was the result of careful planning for over a year. The Moravian Historical Society, gearing up for a $3 million, five-year capital campaign titled “History is Calling,” determined to better understand the history of Nazareth’s Ephrata Tract before altering it in any way. One of the first steps in the campaign involved a thorough survey of the three-acre plot of land with ground-penetrating radar. This project began during the summer heat, as archaeologists from Hunter Research of Trenton, N.J. arrived in Nazareth to attempt to discover what Megan van Ravenswaay, director of the Moravian Historical Society, called “the story beneath the soil.”
The archaeologists used the ground-penetrating radar equipment to produce images of soil layers throughout the Ephrata Tract. This process detects shapes and anomalies and can offer hints of structures that once stood on the land. The archaeologists then correlated the shapes revealed by radar with historic maps of the property in order to select areas to excavate. They chose twenty promising spots.
As the archaeologists began to dig, neighbors and passers-by joined members of the Society to watch the unusual activity around the Whitefield House. On Wednesday, September 24, after digging only a few feet beneath the surface, the archaeologists found large limestone rocks that had been back-filled with soil: this was the foundation of the First House. They also uncovered redware pottery, a glass medicine vial, a pipe, some buttons and a horse bell made of brass.
The ground-penetrating radar also revealed underground shadows that seemed to hint at the remnants of a stockade that was erected during the French and Indian War to protect Moravians and their neighbors from attacks by hostile Indians.
“All our places, with the exception of Christian’s Spring,” the Nazareth diary reported in May 1756, “have been surrounded with a stockade, which shall not so much serve as a stronghold, but more as a protection from all kinds of unnecessary visits.”
The Hunter Research archaeologists, however, could not confirm that the images on the radar indeed captured underground traces of the trench that held the posts of the old stockade. So Muhlenberg College Professor Ben Carter and 16 field archaeology students picked up where Hunter Research left off.
Working on the north side of the Whitefield House from September to November 2014, Carter’s students searched for the stockade’s trench. After removing a top layer of debris, the Muhlenberg team found a layer of construction debris, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century that likely formed when the back porch of the Whitefield House was torn down. They also found a piece of ceramic tile that may have been part of the porch roof.
Beneath this construction debris, the students discovered another layer of material, about twenty centimeters deep and likely dating from the early nineteenth century that included many animal bones. Digging even deeper, they hit the top of a large, stone-lined feature that resembled a latrine (or perhaps a cistern).
In this structure, the students found nails, pottery, coins, broken glass and a redware pipe that matches the style of the eighteenth-century North Carolina Moravian potter, Gottfried Aust.
All these excavated layers contained artifacts like sewing needles and thimbles that indicate textile work, perhaps pointing to the trades that residents on the Ephrata Tract engaged in for their livings. Although the team did not discover the stockade trench, Professor Ben Carter notes that it may be quite close to the area that he and his students excavated.
The researchers presented their findings to overflow audiences at the Whitefield House at evening events in October and November. All agreed that further analysis is needed to understand better what these artifacts reveal about the history of life and worship in Nazareth. Carter’s Muhlenberg students have already begun that work: in his spring 2015 Archaeology of Objects class, each student will analyze one of the artifacts discovered at their 2014 Ephrata Tract dig.
For more information on the Ephrata Tract dig, visit www.moravianhistoricalsociety.org. ν
Scott Paul Gordon is a member of the publication committee for the Moravian Historical Society.
From the January/February 2015 Moravian Magazine