A clump of dirt initially dismissed as nothing more than a pebble has turned out to be one of the most significant 18th Century artifacts ever found in North Carolina, archaeologists say.
"No bigger than a pea," the clump was washed to reveal a pressed glass jewel, etched with a Colonial-era code: "Wilkes and Liberty 45."
Archaeologist Charles Ewen said those words were infamously seditious in the 1760s, and indicate the excavated tavern in Brunswick Town was likely a den of rebellious Americans.
"That was a rallying cry for those in opposition of King George III," says Ewen, director of Phelps Archaeology Laboratory at East Carolina University.
"John Wilkes was a pamphleteer who often published works critical of the government. Brunswick Town was a hotbed of sedition, being among the first to oppose the Stamp Act, and what better place than a tavern to find confirmation of these sentiments?"
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reports Wilkes was an Englishman idolized by Americans at the time. The number 45 refers to a notorious Wilkes pamphlet, which dared say the King was not above reproach, according to the foundation.
Ewen's dig at the tavern made national news in June, when he revealed a fire in the 1760s caused the walls to collapse on top of a trove of well preserved artifacts in the crawl space.
The glass jewel was found next a wall and was part of a cufflink, parts of which were also found, he said. Similar cufflinks with the message have been found in England, he added.
Ewen suspects such cufflinks served as a secret message, with the wearers recognizing one another as like-minded rebels.
"I think of it in the same way as secretive Christians were wearing the fish symbol to identify each other," Ewen said. "Maybe it was something under the radar. They weren't outright denouncing the government, but maybe wearing these cufflinks let you know who was on your side."
An East Carolina student working on the project, Adam Pohlman, was first to notice something odd about the clump: It was translucent blue when held up to the light. He washed it, examined it, and found what looked to be tiny words on the back, Ewen said.
Pohlman's discovery will likely end up on display in one of the state's history museums, Ewen said.
"We are always finding bits of gravel in our screens, but in this case someone put it in a bucket and saved it, rather than picking it out," he said. "What they found was, for me, a tangible link to the past about the political discontent of the time."