Building blocks of Colonial grandeur

Dig links brickyard to historic Annapolis

February 14, 1999|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

What the folks with shovels found under the dark, damp soil was a gold mine of 250-year-old bricks.

"This is going to be big," someone said, and the gathered archaeologists nodded in agreement.

How big is still up in the air, but experts from landmark national historic sites such as Colonial Williamsburg are rushing to Anne Arundel County to observe the excavation and to learn from the extraordinary find.

The archaeological discovery is a sprawling 1760s brickyard that is possibly the source of the bricks used to build historic Annapolis. Scholars say it might be the only commercial Colonial brickyard of its size ever found intact.

"We think this is pretty amazing stuff," said archaeologist Al Luckenbach, director of the county's "Lost Towns" project. "Astounding, really."

The excavation had modest beginnings.

In November, Mollie Ridout -- incidentally, an official at Anne Arundel's historic Londontown site -- was planning to build a house on several acres in a wooded area near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Ridout knew local legend held that her property had been owned by Maryland's last Colonial governor, Horatio Sharpe, and had been the site of a massive brickyard.

She called the county, asking if officials wanted to excavate for historical remains before construction on her house began.

"We immediately hit the jackpot," Luckenbach said, remembering the November day archaeologists started digging on Ridout's property. "We found that, as planned, her new house would have been sitting directly on top of the brickyard."

Archaeologists found, just 6 inches beneath the grass, a brickyard nearly five times as large as they -- or anyone -- had expected. Folklore had it that bricks from the yard had been manufactured in the mid-1700s to build the Whitehall mansion, home to Sharpe and his English family.

"But as we dug, we realized the enormity of what we were finding," Luckenbach said. "We had estimated it would take about six kilns, or clamps as they were called, to build Whitehall. But there seem to be about 30 clamps out there. So we asked ourselves, `Where were all the rest of these bricks going?' "

The hypothesis was that the bricks were hauled to Annapolis and used to build some of the stately structures that still make the Colonial downtown breathtaking. That educated guess was soon bolstered by rock-solid proof.

Archaeologists found one kiln with bricks inside -- fancy, molded bricks with elegant watermarks. The watermarks were distinct, almost perfectly matching bricks used in the Chase-Lloyd House on Annapolis' historic Maryland Avenue.

Ridout's family -- which has owned the land containing the brickyard for almost two centuries -- started to research historical documents of several other buildings in Annapolis. Family members discovered a finance ledger that showed large amounts of money paid to Sharpe by the builders of the Bryce House, a brick structure still standing on East Street.

"This site makes for one heck of a link between it and structures throughout Annapolis and the county as a whole," said Jim Gibb, another archaeologist on the dig.

Gibb said new scientific techniques might eventually allow microscopic testing of different bricks to determine if they match those from the brickyard -- a kind of "DNA testing" for bricks.

The county is continuing to dig up the site. Because the brickyard is on private property -- and time and money constraints exist -- the archaeologists will record on paper much of what they find and then replace the sod, covering the site.

County officials say they hope at some time to come back and research the brickyard more -- perhaps even removing it or replicating it elsewhere. In recent weeks, officials from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation have come to the site while it is uncovered to learn how to make their living-history brick-making site more accurate.

And Ridout is shifting the location of where her house will be built so that it will not sit on top of the brickyard.

"We thought about just putting the house on hydraulic stilts so that we could raise it up whenever the archaeologists wanted to come out, but decided to go with something a bit more conventional," she said.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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