"While many of the objects produced in the Chesapeake and Carolina Low Country display a heavy reliance on British taste, the adventurous and entrepreneurial character of the ethnically diverse populations that migrated in to the Back Country is immediately apparent," Pritchard says.

"These artisans produced highly sophisticated objects that exploited the availability of local materials, often profusely decorating them with motifs that reflect a wide array of cultural backgrounds."

Such discoveries sparked numerous revelations when Hurst and Pritchard returned to Williamsburg, bringing newly enlightened eyes to the study of their home collection.

Among the unexpected finds made in plain sight was a fancy painted writing chair previously believed to hail from Ohio or western Pennsylvania.

"It's now crystal clear that this is actually from central Kentucky," Hurst said, "and it's the best example that there is."

Similar surprises were found in a massive dresser that bears all the hallmarks of a Pennsylvania piece yet was actually made by Pennsylvania immigrants living and working in Chatham, N.C.

"We've had it for 50 years — and I didn't put it in the 'Southern Furniture' book because — like everybody else — I assumed it was Pennsylvania," Hurst says.

"That tells you something about the strength of that old bias. People thought it couldn't possibly be Southern. It was too good."

Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.

Want to go?

"A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South."

Where: DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, entered through the Public Hospital of 1773, Francis and Henry streets, Williamsburg

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily

Cost: $12.95 adults, $6.50 children 6-12

Information: 757-220-7724 or http://www.history.org/museums