Even in a city flooded with handguns,the discovery of a flintlock is amazing Did stadium diggers unearth a relic from Rochambeau?

November 12, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

The backhoes and bulldozers were closing in last January,

and archaeologists at Oriole Park hurried to sift through muddy old cellar holes and privies before they were ripped out to make way for the new stadium's playing field.

But, as luck would have it, one of the most intriguing and "explosive" finds among more than 31,000 artifacts unearthed at the stadium site was found -- not by the archaeologists but by a hard-hat.

"The construction crews were breaking for lunch when one of the fellas with a hard hat on came wandering over to where the archaeologists were working," recalled R. Christopher Goodwin, president of the Frederick archaeological firm hired by the Stadium Authority.

The worker held what looked like a corroded piece of metal.

"He handed it to me," Goodwin said, "and said, 'Is this anything?' And I said, '. . . Yeah! Show me where you found it.' "

Goodwin had immediately recognized the rusty, mud-covered object as a flintlock pistol. Even in a city awash in handguns, this was something extraordinary.

This is the story of the gun's unlikely discovery, and the tricky task of preserving an object that might contain explosives made dangerously unstable by years under ground.

Goodwin had briefed his team to be on the lookout for military objects. On July 24, 1782, French troops under Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vemeur, the Comte (French for Count) de Rochambeau, encamped in what were then woods and fields west of Baltimore.

The French were marching north from Yorktown, Va., where they had aided Washington's army in the final defeat of the British under Cornwallis. They stayed for a month, holding live-fire maneuvers and dances for Baltimore's ladies.

If this gun could be linked to Rochambeau's troops, Goodwin knew, it would be an extraordinary find, and the only relic from the French camp to turn up during the dig.

Goodwin's crew learned that the French campsite intersected the stadium property when they computerized and compared 113 old maps of the area, including the meticulous drawings by Rochambeau's map-maker, Louis-Alexandre Berthier.

"Every time this force encamped, a map would be made," said Martha R. Williams, Goodwin's project historian. Berthier made one map in Baltimore in September 1781, when Rochambeau's 5,500 troops were en route to Yorktown, and a second on their return in 1782.

The maps show the 1782 encampment stretching from what is now South Charles and Montgomery streets, north to an area just west of Lexington Market.

The maps showed that artillery and infantry elements of the Soissonnais Regiment, under the Comte de Vermeuil, and the Saintonge Regiment, under the Comte de Custine, had camped on a small corner of the stadium site.

Williams said the camp would have consisted of tents, cannon, wagons, tents, cook fires, latrines and disposal areas. But finding any trace of it 209 years later was a long shot. Such camps leave little trace.

"You look for things like spent gun flints, food remnants, fire-pit remains, discreet refuse deposits and deposits from basic maintenance," Goodwin said. A wine bottle or horse tack would be a welcome find.

Hope of finding anything was dimmed by 19th century railroad construction and cellar excavations, which would have destroyed camp remnants on 98 percent of the site.

But Goodwin said he told his crew to watch for its traces anyway, "and everybody was heads-up."

Being alert was critical for another reason. Old weaponry can be explosive, Goodwin said. Under ground, "it becomes very unstable."

They began their search where the B. Green Warehouse had stood. Its shallow slab foundation had protected the sites of many earlier 19thcentury row houses, such as that of George Herman "Babe" Ruth's parents' tavern -- the project's best-publicized find.

Perhaps some ground had been undisturbed since 1782.

Gradually, the yards and privies began to yield a wealth of artifacts and structural remains, enlarging understanding of more than two centuries of change in the Camden Yards area, its people and the industries that sustained them.

Thanks to its 85-acre expanse and computer-mapping, Goodwin said, the $200,000 dig "produced one of the largest collections of historical artifacts ever excavated from an urban setting

anywhere in the region."

The discoveries merit preservation because they constitute "a permanent record of what was for most of its history a working-class neighborhood," Goodwin said. "It's not the kind of stuff that's preserved in history texts, but a record of the 'N common man, his way of life, diet and the structure of his household."

The finds, representing all phases of the site's history, include ceramics, toys, tableware, industrial remains, food remains -- from cherry pits to fish scales -- and smoking pipes, including one inscribed "Home Rule for Ireland." There also were dice, combs, brushes, horse tack, bottles, stemware, chamber pots and one arrowhead found in a privy.

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