Digging up a colonial port Archaeologists: London Town may once again rival Williamsburg, Va., this time as a tourist attraction. The long-buried Anne Arundel colonial city on South River is being painstakingly dug up with that view in mind.

August 01, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Digging in hard clay along the banks of the South River, a team of archaeologists is uncovering remnants of a port city that 300 years ago rivaled Annapolis and Williamsburg, Va., in size and stature.

The settlement, known as London Town, is under what is Edgewater in Anne Arundel County. But it is slowly beginning to take shape from the river clay, and with it, the habits, hobbies and labors of its inhabitants centuries ago.

Scientists believe the remains of as many as 100 buildings -- barrel shops, rope makers, taverns, and other port landmarks -- may be clustered under the groomed grounds of London Town House and Gardens, a county-run park. "You could work here for a lifetime," says Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel's archaeologist. "There's that much here."

Until now, the 23-acre county park has focused on the brick mansion of William Brown, who owned the ferry franchise linking the banks of the South River centuries ago.

Brown went bankrupt building his home, all eaves, beveled corners and more than a dozen bedrooms, which became the county's almshouse from 1822 through 1965.

But the port's buried history was ignored until digging began in April. Archaeologists are trying now to make the tourist attraction more than a costumed theme park resembling better-known colonial-era settlements to the south. They believe London Town's buried buildings, arranged along a grid of streets, could become an ideal laboratory for studying 17th- and 18th-century life.

Soon, thanks to a $33,000 gift last week from the Kaplan Fund in New York City, scientists will begin using ground-penetrating radar to determine what lies beneath the soil.

"The main reason we're out here is to find out the stuff that didn't make it into the history books," says Luckenbach, who received his doctorate from the University of Kentucky.

London, as it was known centuries ago, was a tobacco town when tobacco was gold, an early export hub run by a group of newly wealthy Scottish families. The town was the county seat from 1684 through 1695. It also was a port of entry for slave traders.

For London's archaeologists, the discoveries have brought answers but also more questions, foremost among them: Why did a town as vital as London die in the second half of the 18th century?

Its geography was ideal. The main route linking Philadelphia and Williamsburg ran through London at Scott Street, now a ravine on the edge of town. "Washington, Jefferson -- they all came through that gully," Luckenbach says. It was Brown's ferry, the colonial equivalent of owning the Interstate 95 toll booth at the Fort McHenry tunnel, that brought travelers across the South River.

Archaeologists think they may have the answer to London's demise: vindictive politics and class rivalry.

From the late 1600s, the colonial tobacco fleet would gather in the South River before heading across the Atlantic. The crews filled London's taverns, bolstered commerce for the carpenters, butchers and early ship chandleries. It made for a rowdy, prosperous life.

But that changed in 1747. The colonial government in Annapolis approved a list of ports authorized to export tobacco. London was not one of them. The reason may have been that London's Scottish families were growing very rich and beginning to pose a challenge to Maryland's old-money gentry.

In the past three months, archaeologists have been uncovering the heart of London Town night life -- Rumney's Tavern. Researchers discovered property records from the late 1600s showing that Lot 87 on Scott Street belonged to Edward Rumney, a tavern owner. The team of five staff archaeologists, assisted periodically by more than 100 volunteers, is digging on hands and knees under a red canvas tent. A fan works to keep them cool.

The site is about half the size of a tennis court, marked in quadrants by string. The first foot of soil, known as the plow zone, has been removed to get at ground undisturbed by tobacco farmers who worked the land after London disappeared years before the Revolutionary War.

In one quarter digs Jane Cox. Crouched barefoot holding a clipboard, Cox details what she finds and where she finds it. "This is like a history book that there is only one copy of," Luckenbach says. "What we're doing is ripping out the pages."

Jutting from one wall of the deepening hole are animal jaws, broken plates, ale-tankard handles, oyster shells and pipe stems. Scientists are in what they think was Rumney's cellar. "One man's trash is another man's treasure," Luckenbach says.

The animal bones -- sheep, cows, pigs, ducks and chickens -- are being found in groups, mixed together. Jim Gibb, a Ph.D. in archaeology with a purple bandanna around his head and a cigar in his hand, says the discovery suggests a "classic 18th-century meal when people had a little of everything."

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