Learning modernization from the past

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

To understand the history of Annapolis, you might want to look in its dirt.

At least that's the theory behind the opening today of an extensive archaeological dig at the Bordley-Randall mansion near State Circle.

The summertime dig will help illustrate how one of the owners of the 300-year-old property modernized the building while retaining its historic character, archaeologists say.

"We hope to engage people in a debate about how to modernize and how to do so in sympathy with the past," said Marc P. Leone, an anthropology professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and the head of Archaeology in Annapolis.

The group will open the site to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. Monday through Friday for the next five weeks. Students from the University of Maryland's field school working on the project -- now in its third year -- will help conduct free tours of the excavation site beginning at 1 p.m.

The sprawling mansion stands between Maryland Avenue and North Street. It was built in the early 1700s by Thomas Bordley, a Colonial attorney general whose family owned slaves and land in the city.

Alexander Randall, a local congressman who purchased the property in 1845, built houses and shops around it and tore down out-buildings that Mr. Bordley had used to house his slaves.

Mr. Randall also nearly doubled the size of the mansion by adding a wing and updated the interior with plumbing and larger rooms.

The facade, however, was a throwback to Colonial times, modeled after the 18th-century Acton Place on Franklin Street. Acton is considered one of the city's "great houses" built during the era of the American Revolution when Annapolis was a prominent city.

"The changes show how even back then, people were trying to figure out how to maintain Annapolis as a viable place to live and work and visit," said site director Christopher Matthews.

Archaeologists hope the dig will be meaningful to residents of this city, which is still struggling with the need to modernize and the desire to preserve its Colonial past. That tension reached a high-point last fall during the reconstruction of Main Street. Residents eventually won a battle to keep the design of the historic thoroughfare largely unchanged.

Field school students have excavated the mansion and its grounds for the past three summers. Last year, they discovered artifacts that may have belonged to slaves. In soils below the kitchen floor, diggers found a pierced shell, which may have been worn as a pendant, and a polished black stone, which may have been used in African religious rituals.

Mixed in with those items were bits of kitchen rubble, from animal bones to plate fragments. The debris indicates that people had lived on the site since the early 1700s, making a clear case that the house that stands is very likely the one that Thomas Bordley built.

"These are not museum-quality pieces," said John Floyd, an assistant site supervisor. "But they are great for dating and analysis."

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