Archaeologists Unearth Bits Of City's Past

Homes Of Poor Blacks Stood On Gott's Site

November 15, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff writer

The site of a ramshackle, turn-of-the-century housing project for poor black families in Annapolis has become the target of archaeologists digging in a parking lot behind the Arundel Center.

Known collectively as Gott's Court until they were demolished in post-World War II urban renewal, the twin blocks of frame row houses faced each otheracross an alley at the center of the triangular block bounded by Calvert, West and Northwest streets.

The houses were built in 1907, and apparently offered tenants neither basements nor indoor toilets. By the 1910 census, they were hometo 104 people in 25 households, 13 of them headed by women. The adults worked as porters, laundresses, servants, cooks and drivers. Most over 30 were illiterate.

Much of Annapolis' history is well-recorded and documented, said R. Christopher Goodwin, whose Frederick archaeological consulting firm was hired to conduct the dig.

But such history "is written from the point of view of the 'Great-house,' " he said. "Only tangentially" has it recorded "the daily lives of the lower classes."

The goal of the monthlong dig is to document those lives through the refuse and belongings Gott's Court's residents left behind, in their back yards and privies.

Efforts also are under waythrough the Banneker-Douglass Museum to gather the recollections of any former Gott's Court residents who may still be living.

As an important bonus, portions of the excavations that have gone below the 20th-century Gott's Court remains have already turned up traces of the people who lived and worked on West Street -- then called Cowpens Lane -- in the mid-1700s.

The area constituted the western outskirts of 18th-century Annapolis. Martha Williams, Goodwin's historian, said the crew hopes to determine whether people there lived any better or worse than those downtown.

The 18th-century finds were left undisturbed beneath the soil by developer Winson Gott's decision not to excavate cellars for his 1907 project. They have included discarded glassware, ceramics and a silver cuff link bearing the initials JG, perhaps those of John Golder, who lived nearby in the 1750s.

"Once the analysis is completed," said Goodwin, "then we will be able to characterize the way of life, and the material cultures of both (periods) more accurately. The artifacts are real neat, but it's what we can learn from them -- of (the residents') way of life and their economy -- that's important."

The $47,500 Gott's Court dig was requested by the Maryland Historical Trust after the City of Annapolis made plans to build a multi-story parking garage on the site, now occupied by asphalt parking lots.

Goodwin's crew moved in Oct. 15 and expects to work the site until Nov. 22.

Almost immediately after removing the asphalt over several sections of the site, project manager Suzanne Sanders and her crew encountered a broad layer of black coal, coal ash and household debris.

Unlike most urban sites, where householdtrash is contained mostly within privies and pits, the Gott's Court debris formed a virtual carpet across the front and back yards of therow houses.

Archival photographs of a Gott's Court back yard confirm that residents used them as disposal areas in a pattern that archaeologists call a "horizontal sheet midden."

That may have been for want of city trash services, or it may have been habit acquired in rural areas, Goodwin said.

"It's much more like a rural refuse pattern," typical of mid-18th century archaeological sites in the rural South, but still practiced in remote rural areas, Goodwin said.

The debris includes butchered bones, buttons, broken patent medicine and beverage bottles, ironstone, ceramics and pressed glass -- all dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The crew has also unearthed many toys and rubber ball cores, evidence of the children who grew up on Gott's Court.

Although maps of the block show what appearto be privies behind each house, so far none have been found.

Public tours of the site will be offered from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today.

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