Sidebar 7: The Nathaniel Russell House Project - Martha Zierden

Built in 1808, Nathaniel Russell’s stylish mansion loudly proclaimed his social and economic status to guests and passers-by, right down to the wrought iron balcony embellished with his initials. In 1994, Historic Charleston Foundation embarked on an ambitious program of restoration, renovation, and reinterpretation of this historic house museum. The archaeological team was charged with exposing and recovering evidence of architectural changes to the house, the nineteenth-century formal garden, and the work yard. Based on previous work and revelations, we hoped to retrieve artifacts relating to the daily lives of the Russell family and that of their servants. We were not disappointed.

The formal garden that now covers the entire yard was installed in the 1980s. Though beautiful and inviting, it does not convey the realities of nineteenth-century life. Excavations in the front yard revealed rectangular beds and paths likely from the antebellum pleasure garden, while a layer of imported red clay remains from a mid-nineteenth century rose garden. The work yard area, in contrast, is filled with a good bit of the debris of daily living, but the biggest surprise came beneath the neat brick kitchen building itself. Here, three feet of soil and coal dust contained fragments of elaborate Chinese export porcelain from Mrs. Russell’s dining room and the bones of butchered cows, deposited layer after layer from about 1820 until 1850. The three sets of Chinese porcelain, as well as the gentleman’s buckles and buttons, and the pieces of elaborate furniture hardware were somewhat expected, but the butchering remains were not.

The dig also uncovered artifacts from those who likely did the butchering. The resident slaves most likely owned the annular ware bowls and glass beads recovered across the site, as well as the colono ware bowls. Most tantalizing was a cleanly cut strip of a slave tag, a local license for slaves hired out to others. While late-nineteenth-century family memoirs recall many of the “servants” with fondness, the implication of Mrs. Russell’s slave, Tom Russell, in the 1822 Denmark Vesey insurrection suggests that master and slave lived in the same compound but worlds apart.

The layers of earth at the Nathaniel Russell house produced material culture that reflects the purchasing power of Charleston’s elite, which was the greatest of any late colonial or antebellum city. It simultaneously presented the muffled voices of the city’s middling and poor, free and enslaved residents who understood this language of artifacts, even if they did not share its rewards.