OCTOBER 4, 2017

To the Bone explores the procurement, preparation, and serving of foods in Charleston from the 17th century arrival of European settlers and enslaved Africans through the early 20th century. This retrospective on animal husbandry practices and wild resource utilization is based on three decades (and counting) of archaeological research by The Charleston Museum. The exhibit features analyzed archaeological specimens with food-related artifacts from the Museum’s archaeology, history, archives, and natural history collections.
Much of what we have learned of foodways in colonial Charleston emerged from the recovery and analysis of animal bones from archaeological sites throughout the city. Collaborative research between Museum archaeologists and zooarchaeologists at the University of Georgia paints a picture of a bountiful Lowcountry, supporting a range of wild and domestic animals that fed people of all classes. The unique cuisine that developed was a blend of European, African, and Native American traditions with foods found in North America. By sorting and identifying the recovered bone, archaeologists have pieced together the probable menu of early diners.
Zooarchaeological studies tell us that common European domesticates – cattle, pigs, chickens, and, to a lesser extent, sheep and goats – were used heavily. Wild game, though, provided much of the meat consumed in the Lowcountry. Hunting and trapping filled many stew pots in the colonial city. So, too, did a variety of fish and shellfish.
Wild game also provided richness and variety to the menus of the city’s wealthiest residents. Elaborate and celebratory meals required an expansive menu, and this richness was provided by wild game – a host of ducks, geese, turtles, and small mammals. Remains of these animals, as well as archaeological examples of fine dining wares from the Heyward-Washington house are part of the exhibit.
Markets were a major source of food in the city, but archaeology tells us they were not the only source. Artifacts on exhibit include those from digs at two colonial markets, the Beef Market below City Hall at Meeting and Broad Streets, and the Lower Market at the foot of Tradd Street. A rarely-seen collection piece is the set of official copper measures from Center Market, the new 19th century market (still The Market today).
Charleston residents were not completely dependent on local resources. The trans-Atlantic trade brought food and drink from Europe and beyond. The ever-popular Madeira wines graced the tables of wealthy diners, and enhanced celebratory meals. Glassware recovered from McCrady’s Longroom (site of a dinner honoring President George Washington in 1791) and from the Heyward-Washington house are featured in the exhibit.
The research shared in To the Bone is detailed in a recent book, Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community, by Martha Zierden and Elizabeth Reitz and in a series of archaeological site reports available in our online shop.

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