Thursday, December 13, 2007

Courthouse Excavations in 1967/1968

Excavation photograph, probably 1968.

The first archaeological excavation at Port Tobacco for which we have any detailed information was that of the 1815/1818 courthouse, which had largely burned in 1892, the surviving wings subsequently appropriated for other uses. The work was initiated in anticipation of state-funded reconstruction of the courthouse and a brief, incomplete report of the work was prepared by Sarah L. Mathay (May 31, 1968).

The Research Committee of the Port Tobacco Court House Restoration Committee decided in November and December of 1966 to undertake an archaeological investigation of the courthouse. Captain John Mathay, US Army, submitted a plan for the work, but significantly accelerated the work in advance of his transfer from Indian Head Naval Ordnance Center to Fort Bellemore in New York in early February 1967.[1] He managed to prepare a topographic survey (2 ft contour intervals) of the village square area and, between January 27 and February 9, fielded a crew of Boy Scouts, high school students, and a variety of other volunteers. All were trained on the spot for the ten day dig. Sarah Mathay, John's wife, lamented the fact that a full day of training was necessary for many who could only work for three or four days: “It ordinarily takes a full week to master archaeological digging, which is more different from hole digging than is generally supposed” (Mathay 1968:3). We are in awe of the immense capacity for learning of previous generations.

As of May 31, 1968, the team had excavated 17 units, size unspecified. Given John Mathay’s imposition of a ten-foot grid, 22 whole and 11 partial units covering the courthouse and wings, we suspect the units were 10 ft by 10 ft. An overall site map and a partial map of the courthouse excavation accompany the report in the files of the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco. No other documentation of this, or any other excavation, has yet surfaced in their collections.

Because of Captain Mathay’s re-billeting, inclement weather, and tension between the sponsoring organizations (the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco and the Historical Society of Charles County), the project remained dormant until November 4, 1967, at which time work resumed under Sarah Mathay and John Wearmouth, then chair of the Research Committee. Local volunteers again supplied the labor and fieldwork continued until December 18, by which point: “The foundations of the North wing and the west and north walls and half the south wall of the main or center section were located and cleaned out. Artifact washing and cataloguing continued on rainy days, but a considerable backlog remained” (Mathay 1968:3).

The team returned to the field on April 20, 1968, under the sole auspices of the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco. By the end of May, 1968, the team had exposed and recorded the entirety of the foundation, backfilled and cleaned the site, and inventoried the artifact collection. The information they collected on the building footprint and hardware contributed to the design and reconstruction of the building that now occupies the site.
The lack of a complete, detailed report is regrettable. Perhaps, if we can one day find all of the relevant notes, photographs, and collections, we can analyze their data and write a comprehensive report.
[1] Mathay had worked for Charles Cleland at Skegemog Point in 1965 and Lyle Stone at Fort Michilimackinac in 1965/6, and served as curator of weapons at the Michigan State University Museum in 1965/6. He held a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Military Institute [1964]. Although poorly credentialed for supervising this kind of work today, at the time his level of training and experience was not unusual for the field. His supervisor at Michilimackinac, after all, was a graduate student.

1 comment:

April M. Beisaw said...

Our first blog post with a footnote!