Piecing together bits of treasure from President's House

Scientists are puzzling over the 10,000 artifacts dug up from beneath the President's House. And the public can watch the work.

Archaeologist Jed Levin (left) and lab supervisor Brian Seidel talk about the challenge of making sense from fragments unearthed at the President's House site at Sixth and Market Streets. The dig captivated the public and drew more than 300,000 onlookers.

The hole is filled in and the revealed intimacy of presidential power and powerless slavery has disappeared back underground.

But while foundations for George Washington's great bow window and enslaved Hercules' kitchen are temporarily invisible at the President's House site on Independence Mall, it is still possible to view some long-buried secrets.

Over the next several weeks, archaeologists from the National Park Service and URS Corp., the private firm that conducted the dig, will be washing, labeling and scrutinizing roughly 10,000 artifacts pulled from the wells, privies and ground soil at Sixth and Market Streets.

The post-dig work got under way last week at the Independence Living History Center public archaeology laboratory, Third and Chestnut Streets, and will continue every day over the next several weeks. The public can visit the lab and watch the work seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Brian Seidel, a lab supervisor with URS, was on the job there recently, much like a dishwasher, scrubbing seemingly endless numbers of clay pipe stems and bowls, castoffs from a tobacco store run by George Zorn and his descendants in the 19th century. After the President's House was demolished in 1832, three commercial buildings were erected on the land; Zorn's business occupied one of those buildings.

The store is long gone, but its leavings remained in the ground and in great abundance, as archaeologists discovered during the course of this summer's dig.

Obviously, Seidel pointed out, the pipes were not associated with Washington or his successor, John Adams, who occupied the house until the national capital moved to Washington in 1800. In fact, it is too early to tell if anything taken out of the ground at the site can be tied to the presidential decade, 1790-1800.

But archaeologists did unearth a few intriguing finds, some from the 19th century and some that might well date to the 18th century, including an intact redware ceramic crock, found 30 feet down an old well, and an unusual Chinese porcelain bowl with a dragon pattern, found in another well on the site.

Both can be seen at the lab. Do they date from the presidential period? Possibly, although archaeologists said they may be from a slightly earlier period, and the crock is of a local variety produced in abundance well into the 19th century. Further analysis may well provide more precise dating.

The house, owned by financier Robert Morris, was constructed in the 1760s and served at different periods as home to Benedict Arnold and, later, Gen. William Howe, a commander of British forces during the Revolution. After its period as home to presidents, it eventually became a hotel before demolition.

The excavation, which captured the public imagination and drew more than 300,000 visitors, was temporarily covered with earth in July to protect the architectural remains. Officials are considering how to incorporate excavation findings into commemoration of the house and its residents, particularly Washington's nine slaves.

In the meantime, Jed Levin, archaeologist and research director with the park service, said he was taken by the sheer amount of porcelain found in spots on the site.

"There was proportionally more porcelain than I might expect to see," he said. "So my first impression was that this was a household of a wealthy person. . . . What's interesting, though, is that there was quite a bit of Chinese porcelain, relatively little of English ceramics, and a fair amount of locally produced ceramics.

"What that tells me is that you're seeing a split in the ceramics between the high end and the bottom end of the market. Very little in the middle, which would be English ceramics. That looks like the household of a very wealthy person where the household ate off the most expensive ceramics, porcelain, but they had servants, so they may have been eating off the lowest, least expensive ceramics.

"A middle-class household would have had some porcelain, some locally produced ceramics, and then a great deal more of the English ceramics, which would have been the middle. It may prove to be wrong when we look more closely, but that's what struck me."

While it may not be possible to tie specific artifacts to Washington's household, even some of the later 19th-century pipes speak to the racial issues suggested by the dig. One of the many decorated pipe bowls, for instance, caricatured an African man's head, a popular shape in mid-19th-century pipes.

Most of the work currently under way involves the analysis and mending of the huge trove of artifacts that came from the 2000-01 excavation preceding construction of the National Constitution Center at the northern end of Independence Mall.

The constitution center is required by federal law to fund and complete the archaeological work, and the public lab is primarily devoted to that task. Levin said that a volunteer program, begun last spring, has brought in scores of people to help with that work, which has proceeded slowly.

Barbara Karp, one such volunteer, spent much of a recent day trying to fit thousands of porcelain fragments back together.

"It's really, really hard trying to find all the pieces," she said, poring over a table covered with blue ceramic shards. "I'm walking around now trying to find patterns and clues. I come every Wednesday and enjoy it immensely. It frees my mind."

To view video of the artifacts, with commentary from an archaeologist, go to http://go.philly.com/artifacts

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

Piecing together bits of treasure from President's House - Philly

Shards of history