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  • Ruth Mitchell

Telling Time with Tile: How One Artifact Type Helps Date Cultural Features at the St. John's Site

On archeology sites it’s a rare occurrence that one artifact type (that isn’t pottery) is found that can help date the cultural features over the entire site. However, one such example exists for the St. John’s Site in St. Mary’s City. Extensive archeological work has been conducted there, occurring in several stages between 1972 to 2005. An exhibit building was constructed on the site in 2008, and visitors can see the original structure in the ground, as well as artifacts and exhibit panels that are on display.

Excavations revealed a house that was constructed in 1638 by John Lewger, Maryland’s first provincial secretary. It was a framed structure underpinned by shallow, earth-set stones. A brick two-sided hearth heated two rooms, and a large cellar was below the parlor. St. John’s soon became a significant part of the developing town. Lewgar kept busy as an active planter, organizing Assembly meetings in his house, and creating a record of the official aspects of his position as secretary for the province. Lewger moved back to England and the house subsequently changed hands several times. Over the course of 75 years, the main house underwent numerous repairs and alterations, including the addition of several new buildings constructed in the yard. Constant landscape changes occurred as well, such as varying locations and types of fences.

Understanding the types of changes that occurred, and when those changes took place is a challenge the archeologists faced when analyzing the site. In general, the longer the time span that a site is occupied, the more challenging it is to determine when those changes occurred. Often, cultural features that occurred later during a sites’ occupancy cut through earlier cultural features. This results in complications not only in determining the ages of the features, but also in excavating the features.

Figure 1. Pantile found at the St. John’s Site.

The context of artifacts is key to understanding the time periods of any archeological site. At the St. John’s site, artifacts such as ceramics, tobacco pipes, and window leads helped in the analysis when trying to sort out time periods. Rarely an artifact might have a specific date on it, such as a coin, or a wine bottle seal – which are found on many colonial period sites throughout Maryland. In the case of the St. John’s site, the archeologists got lucky. The luck came in the form of a phone call from Annapolis in 1973. Historian Lois Carr was combing through the archives in Annapolis and discovered an original lease agreement between Charles Calvert and Henry Exon. Calvert owned the St. John’s property in the 1670’s and was leasing it to an innkeeper. The surviving lease agreement dates to 1678, and in the document Calvert directs Exon to: “Cover the said House with pantile, to repair the Chimnies and Plaster the House”. Thanks to this rare surviving document, we know that pantile wasn’t present on the site until 1678. The roofing tile was made in the Netherlands and imported to Maryland. This document was a really significant find! Pantile becomes an essential tool in our understanding of the site, and we can sort through each feature that was excavated. Figure 1 depicts a complete pantile found at the St. John’s Site. If there is pantile in a feature context, then we know that it has to date after 1678 when the new roof was installed on the main house. This drawing of the site features depicts three phases of occupancy, with the post-1678 period represented in orange.

Figure 2. Features found at the St. John’s Site – Orange represents the post-1678 phase of the occupation, after pantile was added to the roof.

The careful interweaving of the historical record with the archeological record is essential in understanding a site like St. John’s. Who are the individuals who lived there, and how did the site change over time? How were the buildings used and how long did they stand for? These questions can only be answered through the careful excavation and documentation of archeological context combined with consideration of the few surviving historical documents.

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