Broken plate fixes Colonial Arundel site

June 26, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

A lucky glance by an archaeologist walking in a field near Annapolis has led to the discovery of a 17th-century home site that may have belonged to the commander of Anne Arundel County's first settlement.

Archaeologists excavating the site in April discovered a broken plate bearing a blue design with the family crest of Edward Lloyd.

Lloyd founded the fort and trading post at Providence in 1649 and signed a treaty with the Susquehannock Indians in 1652.

It's the oldest, and "probably the most important Colonial site . . . found so far" in Anne Arundel County, said county archaeologist Al Luckenbach, who found the spot. "It provides our first glimpse of the first European residents of Anne Arundel County."

The extraordinary discovery of Lloyd's plate "is the functional equivalent of going to Jamestown and finding a plate belonging to Capt. John Smith," he said.

Henry M. Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City, said that finding Lloyd's plate, with his family crest on it, "is absolutely astounding."

"I have not seen anywhere else on the East Coast a family plate with a monogram on it from that time period," he said. Some trade guilds in England had plates with crests on them, "but if families had them done, very few survived. It's quite rare."

Other finds at the site include an iron door key, an iron pestle used to grind corn, and a 17th-century iron ax head so sound that "you could sharpen it and mount it today and chop down a tree," Miller said.

But overall, the site was unusually poor in artifacts.

That scarcity, together with the apparent abandonment of valuable items, suggest that the home was occupied for a short time and abandoned in a hurry, Luckenbach said.

But why?

Fire is one possibility, Luckenbach said. "We kept looking for evidence of the place burning down, and it may have. But it hasn't made itself clear."

A more intriguing possibility is warfare.

In 1655, the mouth of the Severn River was the scene of fierce fighting. It pitted the Catholic forces of Lord Baltimore against Puritans led by Lloyd, who had settled at Providence after squabbling with the Anglican government of Virginia.

"There were probably not more than 500 or 600 armed troops," Miller said, "but, for the time and place, that is a huge engagement. In fact, the Battle of the Severn was probably the largest land engagement between Englishmen in North America in the 17th century."

The fighting, in which at least 15 people are believed to have died, is thought to have been centered just across the river from Providence, perhaps where the Naval Academy is now.

(The precise location of the Providence fort is uncertain, but is thought to be on the Severn's north shore, where the radio towers of the Navy Ship Research and Development Center stand today.)

The home site Luckenbach discovered is 3 1/2 miles from the presumed battlefield.

"Was this site in any way involved in the Battle of the Severn in 1655?" Miller asked. Maybe. But it's not an easy call.

"The problem is that the Puritans won, so why would it [a presumably Puritan house, and maybe Lloyd's own] be abandoned?" he said. "We don't know at this point how to explain it."

Luckenbach first stumbled onto the site late in March.

It's near a spring, in an old farm field now targeted for a housing development just east of the Navy Research Center. "We knew there were Indian sites over near the bay, and I had come to look at them," Luckenbach recalled.

On his way out across the field, he walked right over the buried house site without spotting any sign of it.

"But on the way back, I looked at a little gully that had developed on the field, and started picking up pieces of brown pipes," he said.

The clay pipe fragments immediately dated the site, because that brown type disappeared after 1660. Since Providence was settled in 1649, the site had to have been occupied between 1649 and 1660.

So, with help from the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation, the Maryland Historical Trust and others, the archaeologists began digging beside the gully. Their first 5-foot-square hole fell smack on part of what had been a cellar hole dug beneath the house's floorboards.

As they expanded the dig, Luckenbach, his assistant, Esther Read, and their crew uncovered a 6-by-10-foot cellar, with a shelf on one end. It was "chock full" of oyster shells and pieces of fired daub -- a mix of clay and sticks used to build chimneys. Ash deposits suggest the house was occupied no more than three years.

The cellar also contained an iron kettle, the 13-pound iron pestle for corn grinding, the ax head, the iron door key and a broken square "case bottle" probably used to hold liquor. The bottle was dated to the 1650s or before, Luckenbach said.

And, in the corner of the cellar they found the broken Delft plate with the family crest. The fragments apparently had been placed there after the plate was broken.

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