Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the William Paca Garden and the Charles Carroll of Carrolton House and Garden, both located in Historic Annapolis, Maryland. William Paca and Charles Carroll were two of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence and were important men of their day. They lived on grand estates and their gardens were the very definition of formal gardens built along the East Coast of the original thirteen colonies starting in the 18th century. The Paca Garden is an example of what is known as descent or falling gardens, designed following the rules of perspective and creating optical illusions. 18th century garden books informed the wealthy how to properly construct these gardens according to baroque rules giving the gardens a three-dimensional space of moving from large to small, controlled gardens to wilderness. I will discuss my personal tour of both properties by Dr. Mark Leone, historical archaeologist, professor in the department of Anthropology at University of Maryland, College Park, and director of Archaeology in Annapolis project since 1981.
For fun, let’s pretend we are transported back to 1789. As I started my walk, I imagined it was a hot summer night and I was an invited guest for dinner and conversation at a garden party hosted by William and Mary Paca. In order to take it all in, Mrs. Mary Paca told me I must begin my tour at the top of the veranda extending behind the second story of the estate. Immediately, I noticed the sloping landscape of multi-tier terraces leading down to the fish-shaped pond with a quaint Chinese Chippendale bridge inviting me to cross over and wander into a jumbled yet well-planned wilderness of trees offering relief from a hot, humid day typical of an Annapolis summer. The edges of the three terraces are bisected by gravel-lined pathways bordering parterres or formally patterned flower gardens containing luscious flowers, trees and plants I have only seen in such books as New Principles of Gardening by Batty Langley (published in 1726), which sits in the Paca’s personal library. As I relax on one of the benches in the uppermost parterre, the smell of roses fills my senses and a feeling of beauty and tranquility washes over me. Me and other invited guests end the evening with drinks next to the two-story garden house and our eyes are drawn upwards to marvel at the statue of a winged Mercury, known in Roman mythology as messenger of the gods and a god of trade, abundance and commercial success. These seems appropriate since Mr. William Paca was the son John Paca, a wealthy planter of Maryland, and has experienced great personal success as a lawyer, elected member of the Maryland legislature, a delegate to the Continental Congress, governor of Maryland, and an appointed judge to the US District Court for the District of Maryland by President George Washington himself.
Back to the present, it is easy to forget the William Paca Garden would not exist today without the help of archaeology. Early in the 20th century, the garden was destroyed and a 200-room hotel and parking lot was built on its grounds. In the 1960s and 70s, the hotel was torn down and the property was excavated led by archaeologists Mark Leone, Stanley South, Bruce Powell, Glenn Little, and Kenneth and Ronald Orr. In 1984, Dr. Leone published a seminal piece of historical archaeology literature entitled “Interpreting ideology in historical archaeology: using the rules of perspective in the William Paca Garden in Annapolis, Maryland.” One of his main points is the garden is an expression of ideology, a representation of social order where the wealthy and powerful are rightfully placed at the top of the hierarchy (the manicured parterres) while African American slaves are below (the pond and wilderness at the bottom of the terraces). Ideology is the body of doctrine, myth or belief that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group with reference to some political and social plan. Whether the Paca garden is the physical representation of American ideology is open for debate and I encourage you to read the article and visit the garden to decide for yourself.
My tour with Dr. Leone concluded at the Charles Carroll of Carrollton House and Garden on the banks of the Spa Creek watershed which eventually opens into the Chesapeake Bay. Like the Paca Garden, the landscape of the Carroll House was based on geometric techniques such as the 3-4-5 right Pythagorean triangle to create optical illusions of depth and distance of descending terraces leading down to the water’s edge. But instead of boring you with another discussion about manicured landscapes of wealthy men of Annapolis, I will talk about my walkthrough of the bottom level of the house where the kitchen and living quarters for enslaved African and African American slaves were located. Though the temperatures outside were an unbearable 96 degrees, the ground floor was cold and clammy. Documents such as the 1783 tax roll say part of the inventory of the Carroll property were 19 slaves, their names are unknown. Dr. Leone said the female house servant would have worked and possibly slept here. This was also where he and other participants of the Archaeology in Annapolis project discovered an array of late 18th and early 19th century artifacts. One extraordinary find was a cache including a glass bead, a smooth black stone, and 12 quartz crystals covered with a pearlware bowl of English manufacture. Other caches found throughout this room included crystals (one smoky-grey crystal weighed 4lbs!), a piece of an ivory ring, a bubble shell, coins, and ceramics establishing a date range of 1790 to 1820.
It is the job of an archaeologist to interpret these findings but, this was so unique it took the combined efforts of Dr. Frederick Lamp (professor and specialist of African Art at Yale University), Dr. Peter Mark (professor and chair of African American Studies at Wesleyan University), and Dr. Robert F. Thompson (professor of Art History also at Yale). Based on similar caches of known slave quarters and living spaces of free African Americans at the Brice House of Annapolis, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, and the Lott house in New York City, they determined these caches were related to Hoodoo, the North American religion based on Vudon from West and West Central Africa. What is Hoodoo? Since slaves in the New World came for several regions of Africa, it was a combination of diverse cultures and beliefs such as a belief in a Supreme Being, in secondary gods, in spirits of ancestors, and control of spirit forces through divination, conjuring, witchcraft, sorcery and curing. One interpretation of the crystals was their use as sacred objects like rain stones used to conjure the falling of rain. This proves African religious practices were not forgotten but were maintained, evolved and are part of the history of African American identity. Like the fictional adventures of Indiana Jones, this is the equivalent of discovering the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant for any archaeologist.
As a graduate student of historical archaeology at Stanford University, the work of Dr. Mark Leone is required reading. Since 1981, the Archaeology in Annapolis project has helped define the field of historical and public archaeology in the United States. Historical archaeology is self-explanatory. According to the Society for Historical Archaeology, it is “the study of material remains of past societies that also left behind some other form of historical evidence.” It combines archaeological and documentary records in the interpretation of historic sites. Unfortunately, the average person is not exposed to this research unless they visit a museum or a historic park. In order to compensate for the public’s lack of exposure to archaeological research is the emerging discipline of public archaeology as a way of engaging the public to share in the findings and interpretation of what is known as cultural resources. Writing this blog is one example of public archaeology.
Hopefully after reading this blog, you will be motivated to Google the names, research and places mentioned and come up with your own interpretation. Archaeology should be for everyone. So the next time you visit your local museum/historic park or watch a documentary on the History Channel, listen to the evidence, and determine for yourself if you agree or offer your own interpretation, even if it’s to your spouse or co-worker.