British pinpoint Md. Colonial mansion Scientists rediscover early foundations in St. Mary's City

October 13, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

In 1695, the biggest and most fashionable private residence in St. Mary's City, and one of the most impressive in all of English America, was mysteriously blown apart by 900 pounds of gunpowder stored in its cellar.

The mansion -- called St. Peter's Freehold by its owner, Maryland Chancellor Philip Calvert -- was never rebuilt. Maryland's capital was moved from St. Mary's to Annapolis, the settlement vanished beneath farmers' plows, and the location and appearance of St. Peter's were forgotten.

Last May, a team of 30 English scientists, archaeologists and documentary filmmakers descended on the vanished town site. In less than three days, with the help of some state-of-the-art sensing equipment, they rediscovered St. Peter's and revealed much about what it looked like.

The story of the British expedition to Maryland will be told in a television show airing at 5 p.m. today on The Learning Channel.

Dr. Henry Miller, research director for Historic St. Mary's City, called the project "one of the most intense and fascinating archaeological experiences I've had."

"What they gave us was the location, and the orientation of the building [St. Peter's]," he said. "They determined a number of its physical features. And that led us to conclude that St. Peter's was the same size and general appearance as the governor's palace in Williamsburg [Va.]."

"So we're talking about a very impressive piece of architecture for early Maryland. I hope that the land can eventually be purchased so it can be permanently protected," he said.

The British scientists also examined aerial photos of St. Mary's City and pointed Maryland archaeologists toward features that could represent the long-lost site of the colony's original 1634 fort.

Miller said the fort "represents the true beginning of Maryland. All the settlers lived inside it for the first two or three years."

Budget cuts and administrative changes have brought state-funded archaeology at St. Mary's City to a standstill. The May dig was paid for by the British television program, Time Team.

The team brought with it Scottish experts in proton magnetometers and soil resistance meters and their application to archaeology. The hand-held instruments measure subtle variations in magnetic fields or electrical conductivity caused by soil disturbances or buried objects, such as bricks.

More often used by industry to locate such things as utility lines, the devices are used increasingly for archaeology. They had never been tried at St. Mary's City because such expertise is very costly, Miller said.

For four years, the British show's producers have mounted archaeological expeditions all across the British Isles, and filmed them for broadcast in Britain.

"This is the first time they have left the UK," Miller said. "They decided the most appropriate site, because of its English connections and early colonization, was Maryland's first capital."

State records show that Philip Calvert built St. Peter's in 1677. Philip was a half-brother of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Balti- more. He died in 1682. His bones are believed to be those in the largest of three lead coffins raised from beneath the old capital's Brick Chapel site in 1992.

Oral histories suggested St. Peter's was brick, two stories high, with a cupola and banister at the roof peak. Architectural historian Henry Chandlee Forman reported in 1940 that he had found traces of the foundation, and that it appeared square. But Forman's notes and drawings were lost, and archaeologists in May were uncertain what they might find.

Historians believed St. Peter's stood south of the old capital, somewhere in a wheat field owned by J. Spence Howard. The Time Team crew scanned the field with their instruments and printed out "a beautiful square image," Miller said. The archaeologists dug and "came down beautifully on the foundation, right on top of it."

They revealed St. Peter's to be 54 feet square, with a full cellar. The west, or front side of the house was built with a Flemish bond -- a pattern of bricklaying then just coming into fashion.

By 1695, the house was being used as a county militia powder magazine, which destroyed it. St. Mary's chief archaeologist Timothy Riordan said he found "brick fragments that seem to have been melted together" by extremely high temperatures consistent with an explosion.

He also found traces of a brick wall surrounding the house. More walls on the south and southeast sides, coupled with aerial photographs, suggest the mansion had a formal garden. "If true," Miller said, "it would be the first one in the colony."

Miller thinks St. Peter's may have been the model for the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. Both are two-story brick buildings, two rooms deep and roughly 50 to 60 feet square.

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