The Initials in the Lintel

It is not often that archaeologists are able to examine writing in the material record. Most of the time we are dealing with broken plates and bottles. Very rarely do we have an instance where we excavate an object that has been written on by hand. When we do, it is even more rare that it is a personal inscription of some sort, that gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who lived in a building. At the duplex quarter, however, we have such a marking: three letters scraped into the wooden lintel of the northern half of the duplex quarter:


When I first saw these letters, I was awestruck. Who would have put this here? Are they initials of someone who had lived in the building? How long ago would they have been put there? My hunch was that they were inscribed by the most recent family to live in the building, who’s last name was “Milburn.” But I have always been curious about a bit more detail into the markings. This week, I had an opportunity to sit down with Emma Hall, originally Emma Milburn, who had grown up in the duplex quarter. I told her about the letters, and her first inclination was to assume it was something her trouble-making brothers had done. But when  I showed her the photo, she paused: “Those are my mother’s initials: Cecelia Irene Milburn.”

It was a chilling moment, only because of what I already knew about Ms. Hall’s mother: Cecelia had died when Emma was a small child. In fact, in an interview conducted with Ms. Hall over a decade ago, she states that her first memory was of her mother’s funeral, which means she has no memory of her mother living in this house. Emma and her brothers were raised by their father and stepmother. The surprise of seeing her mother’s initials, and learning that they had been in her house, watching over her while she grew up, must have been a strange realization and heartening moment for her. As an interviewer, it certainly was for me.

Read about the work women did after the Civil War at St. Mary’s Manor.

This raises a number of other questions, many that will likely never have answers. Who left the marks? Was it her mother? Or perhaps her father or one of her brothers? The side that it was placed would have been the kitchen and dining room area, a place that Cecelia would have likely spent most of her time, so its location makes sense: this was her space. It was where she worked, prepared meals, and raised her small children. Why label it? Perhaps Cecelia did it, but I can’t help but wonder if it was the work of her husband or one of her sons, marking the space she had lived and worked after her death, to serve as a small memorial and reminder.

Of course, there is no way for us to know for certain. Ms. Hall did not leave the markings, and her father, stepmother, and all but one of her brothers have passed. This week, I hope to do a bit more investigating of the lintel for other markings. This one was particularly visible since the whitewash had rubbed away around it, obscuring the mark for decades, perhaps still hiding others. At the moment, however, it stands as a reminder of an individual who lived, worked, raised families, cared for their homes. It serves as a tiny reminder they were there, and to not forget them.

Talk Together

What do you think? Why do you think someone may have inscribed their initials in the chimney? Have you ever made a similar discovery in your house, something that represents the previous owners? Leave your thoughts and interpretations below!

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