The Basement: “Small Find Heaven”

It is week two at the Archaeology in Annapolis field school and we are continuing to find a plethora of historic artifacts in our spider haven. My unit is in the low-ceilinged basement of the James Holliday house, a rewarding, though somewhat eerie, treasure chest of archaeological finds. The mummified spiders and “not-at-all-dangerous” asbestos pad keep us company while we unearth the history of this family’s house, which has been passed on through generations.

This basement used to function as a kitchen, and our finds are evidence to support this information. We recover items such as bone, glass, ceramic, coins, buttons, straight pins, and more. Several pieces of small bones, such as fish vertebrae, in addition to whole pieces of a duck skull and larger fragments probably from a pig or cow indicate some of the kinds of food that the family was preparing. We have also recovered extremely fragile items, including fish scales and eggshells.

Metal spoon from Unit 22.

Metal spoon from Unit 22. Source: Kate Deeley

The room itself appears to be an area for activities typically associated with women at the time, such as cooking and childrearing. One of our finds was a tiny metal toy spoon, usually part of a set with which a child would play. We hypothesized that perhaps the women would attend to and watch over small children while cooking or working. We also found ivory knitting needles as well as many straight pins; this supports records of women in the household working as dressmakers.

We are finding many small pieces of various types of ceramic, including Whiteware and Rockingham. Whiteware products are white-colored ceramics that can be used for plates or cups. Rockingham ceramics are brown-colored and can be used as pitchers or spittoons. We also uncover larger pieces upon which one can clearly see intricate transfer prints or decals, which are methods of applying designs to ceramics. To supplement this we found fragments of porcelain with gold-colored designs, possibly indicating the family’s middle or upper-middle class status.


This excavation is important to the history of Annapolis as a whole, as well as to the history of the individual family. We are helping recreate the lifestyles and everyday activities of the family that has owned the house for generations. By piecing together the fragments of their lives that we find, we can make the people who lived in the house human again, rather than just names in a history textbook.

Digging in the Holliday House basement.

Digging in the Holliday House basement. Source: Kate Deeley

The history of this house in particular is crucial to Annapolis, because it represents an example of what life was like for freed African Americans in the United States. African traditions and customs may become apparent in the finds of the Holliday house, showing how African Americans held on to their culture’s ethnic practices for generations, rather than assuming the hierarchically dominant white culture that had historically oppressed them. Most history and archaeology up to now has focused on European descendants and white history, but the excavation of this house will add to the increasing knowledge of African American archaeology and the role they have played in the development of this country.

As for our unit, it provided adequate challenges for us in the beginning due to its confusing and overlapping microstrata. Microstrata are very thin layers of soil that can be difficult to distinguish because they are so small. However, it was worth the trouble because we have found so many incredible artifacts since beginning our dig. Although the frequency and number of findings has decreased considerably for us since we hit a thick level of clay on Tuesday, we will keep digging and searching for more informative artifacts in the coming days as we continue to develop our trowel arms and to learn how to do scientific archaeology in Annapolis.

1 Comment
  1. OMG cute spoon!!

    Great post! Love the commentary on race. Were the knitting needles complete?

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