Archaeologists dig for Jewish history Fells Point house location of state's 1st known synagogue


A Revolutionary War-era house in Fells Point where the first known synagogue in Maryland met in 1830-1832 has yielded unexpectedly rich deposits of historical artifacts, according to two archaeologists involved in the dig.

Privies in the house and on a side lot at Fleet and Bond streets became time capsules near the center of the thriving 18th-century seaport that merged with other towns to form Baltimore.

Since May, excavators have uncovered no artifacts from the synagogue but have come across thousands of china cups and plates, wine bottles, pitchers, beer mugs, coins and other items from the late 1700s, the early to mid-1800s and the late 1800s.

"This site is almost undisturbed and is giving us a very important collection of artifacts to study the history of Fells Point in a pristine condition," said Esther Doyle Read, director of the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology.

She was in her element as she stood by piles of dirt near three excavation sites and the remains of 15 privy holes. Archaeologists love privies because they contain items that are discarded by people as junk and preserved as sociological gold.

Read pointed to a pile covered with oyster shells far larger than such shells are today and said, "Bar food in the 1850s."

In different periods, the three-story brick building was a private home, a saloon, a market, a synagogue, a boarding house, an auto parts store and, as recently as the early 1990s, a glass shop.

Read's center and Baltimore Hebrew University are in a joint venture with the property's owner, Brian Schwartz of Baltimore County, to preserve the site's historical valuables.

"The dig is also important because we are discovering the relationship of the synagogue to the surrounding community and to the periods before, during and after it was a place of worship," said Barry M. Gittlen, a longtime archaeologist who works at sites in Israel as professor of biblical and archaeological studies at Baltimore Hebrew.

Among the discoveries are broken artifacts being pieced together: 18th-century stemware and teacups made without handles; a large 1820s U.S. penny and a 19th-century snuff jar; an ice skate; cream-ware; and a child's slate board with pencil.

The three said the site is well documented in local histories as the first formal location of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in a second-floor room. Thirteen Orthodox Jews met there to worship above a market a year after 10 of them met in a minyan -- required to form a synagogue -- in 1829 at the home of Zalma Rhine at Holliday and Pleasant streets. The General Assembly chartered the synagogue in February 1830.

That was 15 years and three moves before the congregation grew big enough to build the famous Lloyd Street Synagogue, the first building constructed as a synagogue in Maryland and the third-oldest one in the country.

Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter, senior rabbi of the now-Reform congregation, welcomed the dig. "Discovery of our roots and traditions in our past is always welcome. It's very interesting and we're very confident in Dr. Gittlen's work," he said.

"The hope of finding anything in relation to the synagogue was really nil because the congregation moved on to other sites and naturally took its articles with it," Gittlen said.

The archaeologists did uncover one mystery, a 2-inch-high bottle made of clear glass with a Star of David and the letters "MO" inside the star. The scientists dated the vessel to about 1875, long after the synagogue had moved. They said they would like to know its purpose and the meaning of "MO."

"The 13 prayed here and faced east toward Bond Street," said Schwartz as he stood in the second-floor, 30-by-15-foot corner storage room. "This room is the first place where the 195 synagogues now in Maryland came from. We should preserve it."

Schwartz, who grew up six blocks away, is a computer company manager whose family has owned the property since 1940. He and his wife, Eva, are active in Jewish community affairs.

While renovating the house, Schwartz wants to spur the interest of the Jewish community in restoring the historic site. Its part in local Jewish history is reported in such books as Isaac M. Fein's "The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920."

Knowing the site contained buried artifacts, Schwartz called Gittlen, who was delighted to organize the dig and suggested that Read be a co-director of the Fells Point Synagogue Project. Schwartz also allowed three amateur archaeologists -- Peter Middlethon of Crownsville, Doug Anderson of Centreville and Pat Enright of Bowie -- to excavate.

Other workers include Jean Amann, director of the third-floor laboratory where volunteers clean, distribute and analyze the artifacts. Work will continue outdoors until the weather turns too cold, then will move inside with digging in the basement and investigations in the lab.

Read, whose group has recently been aided by the University of Baltimore, has been excavating sites in Maryland and around the country for 20 years. For information on volunteering at the site, call 410-327-1844 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Pub Date: 10/03/98

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