Dig uncovers 3 centuries of life in capital

January 26, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

Three centuries of Annapolis life are buried in the dirt where a new courthouse soon will stand.

The property off Church Circle -- home to the Anne Arundel County Courthouse, a parking lot and a few government buildings -- is rich with artifacts from as early as the 1650s, including the remnants of an old cellar that could be the oldest structure ever excavated in the city, according to a new study.

The report by the University of Maryland College Park and the Historic Annapolis Foundation reveals glimpses of Annapolis life from the days when the city was the nation's capital -- all the way to the 1950s when the county began buying up land for a courthouse complex.

"If we're right, it dates to exactly when the [nation's] capital moved to the city," said John Seidel, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland who helped direct the three-month excavation. "That would make it the earliest excavated structure in the city's history."

The $110,000 study and dig were required by the city's Historic District Commission as part of its approval last year of the $43 million courthouse project.

The diggers are presenting their findings today to an architectural firm commissioned by the county. While the courthouse construction will continue, the archaeologists are suggesting placing the newly unearthed artifacts in a permanent collection at the courthouse itself or the nearby Banneker-Douglass Museum on Franklin Street.

Included in the two-part study are findings about life in a three-block area that covers nearly every decade since the city was founded in 1649.

"To be able to find three centuries of life in that one small space is just startling," said Mr. Seidel. "You tend to think early evidence from urban areas where people lived so intensively would be obliterated, but that's just not the case."

The findings are diverse -- a wood-paneled outhouse that was a receptacle for household trash, bed springs, broken china dolls, animal bones from families who lived there when the area was home to free blacks in the early 19th century.

A cluster of foundations from 19th-century homes yielded scores of artifacts. Nestled in the soil were wine bottles, signet rings, buttons, china, ink wells, clay marbles and coins documenting ,, Annapolis from before the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution.

But researchers say it was the Colonial-era cellar hole that really took them by surprise.

Archaeologists digging during the summer found dark, stained dirt and then hit vertical wood planking and spots where wooden posts once were. Archaeologists have named this site the Hill-Beale House, for Joseph Hill and John Beale, who owned the lot during the early 1700s.

"It's a type of construction very typical of the 1600s," Mr. Seidel said.

Also characteristic of the same period were bottle fragments with wide bottoms and short, stout necks found scattered around the site.

Meanwhile, about 150 feet away, archaeologists found the remains of what appears to be an old forge. Porous bits of orange slag, bits of crucible, charcoal fragments and Dutch bricks were clustered in a small area near Cathedral Street. The study says a forge probably stood near the site, manufacturing horseshoes and metal pieces for wagons and boats.

"But we never actually found the foundation for the forge," Mr. Seidel said. "It was one of our only disappointments in the dig."

Even if a forge belched smoke and created a noisy daily business, the area near the courthouse was still considered prime real estate, according to the researchers.

The land sloped south toward Acton Cove, which centuries ago stretched almost to the intersection of South and Cathedral streets. With the water so close, Mr. Seidel said, the area probably attracted settlement.

But the community was not dominated by white settlers. In fact, the area behind the courthouse was a thriving black community until the 1950s, when the county government began buying up property.

A fire insurance map from 1885 shows "Negro Tenements" lining Cathedral Street and "Negro Dwellings" on South Street. On Doctor Street, now Franklin Street, the map shows more homes that probably were owned by white families.

Although the white and black communities lived close by, they did not always cross paths.

Behind the courthouse, which was constructed in 1824, archaeologists found the foundation of a massive wall that separated the institution from the neighboring black families.

Many black families lived on Bellis Court, which was named for William H. Bellis, a local landowner who was shipped to an insane asylum in Baltimore County.

His wife had their home torn down in 1896 to make way for new dwellings that she leased, mostly to black tenants.

Artifacts from these back yards and garbage pits indicate that black families showed a greater preference for pork, and fish and fowl taken from the nearby bay and woods instead of purchased from more expensive downtown shops.

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