When James Holliday, an African-American who was born a slave but died an Annapolis homeowner, gathered for meals with his family in their brick home just off State Circle in the late 19th century, they dined on fine dishware — each plate with its own ornate pattern or crisp white finish.
With what was then considered a prestigious job as a messenger for the superintendent at the U.S. Naval Academy, Holliday could afford to buy his family fancy plates in accordance with Victorian etiquette as relayed in books and newspapers.
But unique to the middle-class, African-American experience in Annapolis, researchers say, was the practice of buying plates of varying patterns — not an entire set of dishware in a single design — perhaps for financial reasons or perhaps as a way of putting an individual stamp on the table.
Archaeologists from the University of Maryland have painstakingly excavated Holliday's plates, bottles and other items — including an 18th-century coin worn as a good-luck charm — from the backyard and basement of the East Street home in recent months.
Their work, at the Holliday House and another historic home where African-Americans and later Filipino immigrants lived, concluded Thursday. Now the team will move on to the meticulous process of cleaning, cataloging and studying the items in terms of their historical context and telling this story of Annapolis.
"What we've found here are really some rare finds," said Mark P. Leone, an archaeologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They were middle-class and free. That is rare and not frequently explored in Maryland."
Leone created and directs the 30-year-old Archaeology in Annapolis program, a partnership between the university and the nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation that has focused on the city's African-American experience.
He and his undergraduate and graduate students have worked at the site with the permission of the owner, a Holliday descendant, since last year. Researchers dug up most of the small backyard to a depth of about four feet and discovered a barrel privy, which served as a toilet. It appeared to have gone out of use around the 1920s, when an addition to the house included indoor plumbing.
Among other findings were glass bottles containing medicine and mineral water, indicating that the Holliday family may have used home remedies in lieu of a doctor's care. Leone says this was typical of black life in segregated society.
Last week, the archaeologists found a revolver in the backyard. It was heavily oxidized, and it will take time to determine its origin.
Below the dirt floor of the basement, they found buttons and straight pins that likely belonged to Holliday's daughter and granddaughter, who were dress makers. In an area where the archaeologists uncovered evidence of a kitchen, they found animal bones, glass marbles, a toy soldier and a half-wood and half-bone domino, indications that the family spent considerable time there.
Kate Deeley, a teaching assistant and lab director at the university who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the Holliday family, said the items found at the home provide a "really rich history of Annapolis."
"They were very typical of a middle-class family," she said.
Holliday was freed in 1819 and worked for nearly 40 years as a messenger for the academy superintendent. He began the job in 1845, bought the house five years later and lived there until his death in 1882.
The Annapolis home is still in the hands of his family. The Holliday House is just the second in Annapolis that was occupied by free blacks to be excavated by the team. Fifteen years ago, members of the group excavated the nearby Maynard-Burgess House.
The group also led a 1996 dig at the Slayton House, a four-story brick structure built in 1774, where researchers found items that shed light on slave culture.
Interesting to researchers is how Annapolis' African-American community and its Filipino immigrants, who historically came to Annapolis to work as cooks at the Naval Academy, came together.
Holliday's granddaughter married a Filipino who was a cook in the Navy in 1919.
"What we found shows that the city has been integrated and harmonious for a long time," Leone said.
Perhaps most interesting, said Leone, is a Spanish coin from 1789. The silver coin has a small, crudely punched hole, indicating that it was worn as a pendant, Leone said, a religious practice thought to provide supernatural protection that can be traced to West African traditions.