Holliday House Artifacts from Unit 19

As we near the close of our Holliday House excavation, it is a good time to reflect on some of the most interesting artifacts we found in Unit 19. I have chosen to talk about these artifacts because they are prime ways that we, as archaeologists, can look into the past and see how the people who lived in the house acted and maybe even thought as they used the items.

The first artifact that we found that really left an impact in my mind was a small brass shank button. A shank button is one that is threaded through a small ring on the back of the button. However, it was the front of this button that was the most intriguing aspect of the find. The center was decorated with the Virginia State Seal – a man standing on top of another and stabbing him with a long spear. This violent symbol is surrounded by the State motto, Sic Semper Tyrranus. The size and topic of the button suggests some kind of military button, maybe from a cuff, but we are uncertain at this point because the writing on the back of the button which would indicate the maker is too corroded to read.

Shortly after we found the Virginia button, we found another, bigger shank button. About the size of a quarter, we have speculated that it had a different use – possibly used as a fastener for a collar or similar article of clothing. However, this button was different than the one previously found. This button had the United States Seal on it with the eagle holding the arrows and olive branch in his talons. This indicates yet another military button.

There are a few reasons that could contribute to the presence of these buttons. The first reason is the Holliday family’s relation to the Navy and Naval Academy. Many of the men in the family worked on the base and on ships as waiters and other similar positions. Related to occupation, the Holliday women often took on dress making in the home as a side business on top of the work they did at the Naval Academy. We have speculated that the presence of these buttons and others found on the site is good evidence of how closely related the family and the Academy were.

Those buttons were found in the first week of excavation. The last day of the second week proved to be the most interesting in terms of found artifacts. In one of the corners of the unit, I uncovered a round object. Upon further looking, I saw that it was a coin. However, it was very thin so I did not think that it could have been an American coin. We took quite a while, rubbing off the accumulation of dirt, but eventually identified the coin as an 18th century Spanish silver piece from Carlos IV’s reign. On top of this, the coin was pierced and I found a little ringlet near the area of the coin. Putting all this together and considering the age of the coin (far before the construction of the house) we believe that the coin was fashioned into a pendent worn as a reminder. I think that, since there was a member of the family that came from the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, it was worn as a symbol and reminder of his homeland.

These finds and others from the site help us connect with the past and see how the people in the house lived and how they interacted in the city of Annapolis.

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2 Comments
  1. This sounds great! The recent newspaper articles are intriguing, as well. I’ve added the site name (It had been recorded as [...]) to the official site record, and look forward to an update for the files. This is the first archeological site in the state with a Filipino-American cultural component, by the way.

    Jennie Cosham
    Archeological Registrar
    Maryland Historical Trust

  2. Benjamin Skolnik

    Fun Fact:
    The official seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia was designed in 1776 by Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Robert Carter Nicholas, and George Wythe.
    It depicts the Roman virtue Vitrus posed in victory over Tyranny. She is traditionally depicted with a downward pointing spear and sheathed sword.
    The motto inscribed below the seal is Latin and means “Thus always to Tyrants”. Prior to its use as Virginia’s motto, it was supposedly uttered by Brutus during the assassination of Julius Caesar and later, by John Wilkes Booth during the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
    Buttons like this were extremely common during the Civil War among units from Virginia. Units from many states in both the Union and the Confederacy had similar buttons with designs depicting their home states.
    Once we get the button back to the lab, we may be able to make out the maker’s mark on the reverse. If the letters are too difficult to read, we may be able to make a list of known manufacturers and compare those to the letters we can make out. We may also be able to use stylistic variations in the depiction of Vitrus and Tyranny to narrow down a maker or date of manufacture.
    I’m glad you thought this button was interesting. It’s one of my favorite artifacts from the James Holliday House.

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