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  • Henry M. Miller

The Significance of Knowing Where

An artifact can reveal much about itself to an archeologist but knowing where it was found is also a key piece of evidence. Indeed, the location is a vital part of the archeological context for an object. A good example comes from the excavations at the Van Sweringen site in St. Mary’s City. It began as an office and meeting place for the colonial government in 1664. That purpose ended in 1676 when the new brick state house was finished. Soon afterward, Dutch immigrant Garrett Van Sweringen acquired the property and converted it into the most elegant hotel in the colony. For the next two decades, it catered to the elite of Maryland. During the 1970s excavations at the Van Sweringen site, archeologists were surprised to recover a small silver medallion near the front door of the original building.

Figure 1. Silver medallion from the Van Sweringen site. Front (left), Back (right).

Research identified it as the image of the great Swedish King Gustavas Adolphus. The portrait of the monarch faces the viewer on the front, and a carefully placed circular hole was drilled just above his head so that the medal could be worn around the neck on a string. Iron corrosion about the hole, especially on the back side, suggests that an iron loop ran through the hole so that when it was suspended on a string, the metal would lay flat on the chest or garment. This was clearly a personal object that had meaning to the wearer.

On the back side is a legend in Latin and symbolic figures of a sword and septer, crossed by a snake. The legend is ENSEM GRADIVVS SCEPTRUM THEMIS IPSA GVBERNAT which can be translated: Gradivus Governs the Sword, Themis Herself Governs the Scepter

Gradivus is a term for “he who walks in battle”, indicating Mars, the god of war and Themis was the goddess of justice. The motto probably denotes the combination of remarkable military skills and just governance of Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus the Great. The sword and scepter support the motto and the snake is a heraldic symbol of wisdom.

Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) ruled Sweden for 21 years, during which time he improved the government and developed one of the greatest military powers in Europe. Adolphus is regarded as one of the finest military commanders, who championed the Lutheran cause in the 30 Years War and became an esteemed figure among all Protestants. His death in battle in 1632 was a great loss but his military ideas and efficient government allowed Sweden to remain a major European power. He became a figure of great pride for Swedes, which led to the production of commemorative medals.

Consultation with Eva Wisehn, Senior Curator of the Myntkabinettet (the Royal Coin Cabinet), in Stockholm, indicates the St. Mary’s medallion was struck after the king’s death, likely in Germany. She stated that the medallion was intended as “a token of remembrance of the hero king”. The suspension hole supports that interpretation. To her knowledge, it is the oldest representation of the Swedish king yet found in North America. So what is it doing at St. Mary’s City?

Although Maryland was originally settled by English and Irish, other nationalilties began immigrating to the colony. New Sweden was established on Delaware Bay in 1638 and flourished until the Dutch captured it in 1655. Some Swedes then saw Maryland as a better option. When the English captured the Dutch colony on the Delaware in 1664, more Swedes and Dutch migrated to Maryland. One possible link is Van Sweringen. He had interacted with the Swedes along the Delaware in his post of deputy commander of the Dutch New Amstel colony, and might have acquired the medallion from them. But as a Catholic living in Maryland, it seems highly unlikely that he would have had any interest in keeping or wearing a memento of the esteemed Protestant King.

The more likely explanation relates to the original function of the site. It served as a records office where requests for land patents and petitions were received. A group of Swedish immigrants requested land and applied for citizenship at this office between 1669 and 1676. One of those Swedes seeking naturalization is most probably the individual who lost the medal. It is also of note that early tobacco pipes cluster around this front door zone, suggesting a gathering area.

Knowing where this object was found allows the archeologist to more fully tell its story and how it relates to the earliest effort at formal naturalization in English America, first implemented by Maryland in the 1660s. Such a tie to the long story of immigration could not be established if this medallion had been metal detected and the knowledge of its historic association lost. While not always recognized, location is as vital a piece of archeological information as the artifact itself, and together they allow for a much fuller and more nuanced understanding of our shared past.

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