Medical Artifacts from St. Mary’s City
Updated: Apr 13
Silas Hurry, Curator of Collections and Archaeological Laboratory Director, Historic St. Mary’s City
Over the more than fifty years of archaeological excavations at the site of Maryland’s first capital, numerous medical-related artifacts have been discovered. Never common, they represent tangible remains of people trying to be healed. One of the first excavations in the “modern” period at St. Mary’s involved the John Hicks site. Excavated under the direction of Glen Little and Stephen Israel, the Hicks site represented an early 18thcentury plantation assemblage. Notable from the Hicks excavations was the recovery of a fleam. A fleam is a device designed to open a vein to bleed an individual to help get their “humors” in balance. Fleams were also used to bleed horses.
The Tole-Tabbs site is located in what is known as North Field at the gateway to St. Mary’s City. Excavated in 1971 and 1972, the site was occupied from the late 18th century into
the 19th century. Excavation yielded a fragment of a tin glazed or delftware pill slab. Pill slabs were used to roll compounded medicines into long “snakes” which were then cut into individual pills. Pill slabs are completely flat and glazed on all sides. These medical and hygiene forms were the last expressions of the English delftware industry.
The St. John’s site was explored by the museum beginning in 1972. The site dates from 1634 – ca. 1720. A vast array of artifacts was uncovered, including some tools used by barber-
surgeons. Barber-surgeons preformed minor surgeries and bled individuals. Notable from this collection is a pair of barber scissors which have a distinctive extra tang extending from one of the finger loops. Also found at St. John’s were a pair of forceps, possibly used in surgery or for dental extractions.
The St. John’s site also yielded an apothecary weight. Made of a copper alloy, the disk-shaped weight bears a series of marks. The weight is ¼ ounce avoirdupois which is the standard for apothecary weights. The proof marks include a crowned “I” for James the First (1603-1625), a dagger which signifies the City of London, and a ewer which serves as the mark of the Brass Founders’ Guild. This weight was already nearly a decade old when the Maryland Colony was founded. Weights and scales occur regularly in probate inventories, mostly in estates of individuals who were not themselves physicians. Most treated their own maladies at home.
Some artifacts doubtlessly served many purposes. Gallipots or drug jars are relatively common objects on 17th-century sites, but they could be used to contain any number of materials. A completely intact, plain white tin-glazed specimen was recovered from the Van Sweringen site. Also found at the Van Sweringen site was a curious lead object with a white clay pipestem embedded in it. The working interpretation of this item is an improvised clyster pipe or enema tube.
Medical devices are relatively uncommon artifacts but can provide some insight into past life experience. These can be greatly augmented by historical documents. Probate inventories provide great detail about what the medical practitioners were doing. Perhaps one of the greatest surprises from probate research is that electro-convulsive treatment was being used in the 1770s. Dr. Henry Jerningham who lived in Bushwood, Maryland, provided this service as well as smallpox inoculations. Both are mentioned in the Maryland Gazette.