Rescuing Hampton’s past one archaeological dig at a time

For a place with a history reaching back more than 400 years, the oldest continuous English-speaking settlement in the United States sits in a landscape that’s strangely barren.

Torched by its Confederate residents during the Civil War, Hampton lost nearly every vestige of its boom years as one of the Chesapeake Bay’s richest and most important colonial ports — and not long after rebuilding, most of it disappeared again in a catastrophic 1884 fire.

All but a few remnants of its big-money days as the late-19th- and early-20th-century seafood capital called Crabtown vanished, too, razed by irresistible urban redevelopment during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Yet hidden beneath its empty lots and half-deserted blocks of asphalt lies a legacy of power, wealth and influence that has been plumbed like few others.

Since volunteers in 1966 began exploring the early-1600s site of the oldest Episcopal congregation in the United States, nearly 20 major archaeological digs have unearthed the buried evidence of this luminous if dirt-masked past.

And so eye-opening is the landscape of bustling colonial shipyards, elite waterfront taverns and prosperous brick dwellings they’ve resurrected, that the Hampton History Museum is staging a Saturday walking tour aimed at reconnecting to the past through 50 years of digging.

“People say that old Hampton is gone. But it’s still here under the surface — and pretty much intact,” says city historian J. Michael Cobb, who will join archaeologist Nick Luccketti to conduct the tours.

“And if you’re like me — and you’ve had the chance to step into the foundations of the buildings that have been rediscovered over the years — it really gives you a feeling for the streetscape that was here. It’s like walking back in time.”

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