Pieces of history unearthed

Archaeology: A hurried dig reveals what experts believe is the site of Anne Arundel County's second courthouse.

February 04, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County archaeologists suspect that their hurried dig next to historic London Town park has unearthed the spot where the county's second courthouse stood three centuries ago.

"I am more convinced than ever that it may be the courthouse," county archaeologist Al Luckenbach said yesterday.

If it is the courthouse that served from 1684 to 1695, the find would corroborate sparse surviving records indicating that the building was perched along Scott Street, the main drag of the Colonial port of London Town, he said.

Located along the South River, the 100-acre London Town settlement was a bustling tobacco port and key ferry point from 1683 through the mid-1700s. The original buildings are long gone, but a 23-acre park and archaeological site, Historic London Town and Gardens, remains. Communities have grown up around it.

An emergency dig on private property adjacent to the park, spurred by the owner's plans to tear down a home and build a larger one, was extended through tomorrow. It netted nothing of interest until Wednesday last week, when -- two days before the dig's scheduled end -- the shivering archaeologists unearthed bits of red clay and charred wood characteristic of a hearth.

Two days later, in what was supposed to be the waning hours of the dig, they found what appeared to be a post that helped hold up the structure.

Yesterday, evidence of another post and artifacts relating to smoking and drinking -- bits of pipestems, chips of a Delft-type punch bowl and at least nine broken wine bottles -- turned up close to the hearth.

"Alcohol was a primary component of the flow of justice," Luckenbach said.

With privies often located uphill from wells, the safety of drinking water was iffy. Colonists favored cider, wine, brandy, ale and rum.

The county park is on one side of what in the late 1600s was Scott Street. County archaeologists have been excavating there for more than seven years, turning up evidence of Colonial life, including Rumney's Tavern and other of the port's businesses.

But this is archaeologists' first glimpse of what lies beneath the ridge on the other side of Scott Street, Luckenbach said.

"The only clue that it might be the courthouse is the lack of bones and shells. Places that were lived in generated a whole lot of garbage," Luckenbach said.

Sites of long-gone government buildings and churches often are noted by what's not there. Records say a house and a tavern were next to the courthouse.

The courthouse, probably a 25-foot square building, replaced one in the southern part of the county that collapsed from neglect in 1683.

The new official building was built in London Town. There the court stayed until 1695, when legislators decided -- in the absence of Lord Baltimore, who wanted London Town as the Colonial seat of government -- to move the capital from St. Mary's City to Annapolis, Luckenbach said. The courts moved from London Town, as well.

The chilly dig resulted from an agreement between Harikant and Kunjlata Shah, who have owned the property for about a decade, and Anne Arundel County. The Shahs could not be reached for comment.

The two have critical-area violations on their waterfront property, but the county did not pursue them, county officials said. Last year, officials told the owners they could address the violations through reforestation, removal of a structure on the property and permits for the new construction, according to letters from the county.

Terms included an agreement signed in September that allowed archaeologists onto the site for three weeks as soon as permits were issued, which happened Jan. 13.

The dig began with temperatures in the single digits and snow and sleet falling. Bundled-up workers hacked the topsoil into ice-topped tiles. Yesterday, with a high of more than 40 degrees, seemed like a heat wave to workers.

The Maryland Historical Trust gave $20,000 to help fund the dig, enabling Luckenbach to hire temporary workers and heat a "digloo," a white metal and Plexiglas building where small teams sifted dirt through six screens. The trust also provided a handful of staffers who spent Friday shaking screens of soil for artifacts.

Two propane heaters -- one to warm workers, the other for defrosting pails of soil -- kept the inside at a luxurious 60 degrees. Inside, volunteer Susan Morris of Laurel did the "digloo twist," a twist-like dance step aimed at getting caked mud off her shoes.

Outside, a few dozen yards away, Karen Ackermann of Bowie, a paid temporary worker, wore six layers of clothing as she scraped dirt under a crisp white canopy. Just a few feet from pits where she and others picked at the dirt stood a birdbath, its water a disc of ice.

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