Annapolis is getting a special present to celebrate its 300th birthday: a peek at its beginnings.
Traces of a cellar and blacksmith's forge, unearthed last week by archaeologists in the Anne Arundel County Courthouse parking lot, mark the earliest signs ever found of the tiny hamlet that became Maryland's state capital.
"I think there's always been somewhat of a mystery as to where did Annapolis start, and when did it start," said Donna Ware, chairwoman of the Annapolis Historic District Commission and the county's architectural historian. "What we found was beyond our expectations."
Excavating the site was one condition the Annapolis Historic District Commission imposed before granting approval for development of the site, earmarked for a new county courthouse.
"When you build something that massive and disturb that much ground, we were very interested in getting all the information we could because we knew it would be our last look at this little corner," Ms. Ware said. "This is a major contribution to the archaeological information about the city."
The cellar that is causing so much excitement is believed to have been part of a house built between 1660 and 1710 in what was known then as Anne-Arundel Towne or Arundelton.
The village, really a handful of houses, took shape in 1666 when deeds show Lord Baltimore purchased 19 acres that extended from Acton Cove to the Church Circle, where the courthouse and parking lot are located.
Arundelton was chosen as the site of the new state capital in 1694. A year later the name was changed to Annapolis, in honor of Queen Mary's sister, Princess Anne, and the government's offices were physically moved from St. Mary's City.
"If we're right, this would be the first time any trace of that [earlier] community has ever been found," said Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel County's staff archaeologist. "And the forge is the earliest evidence of industrial activity here."
Now the archaeologists have the task of determining if they have found Anne-Arundel Towne or early Annapolis.
"This stuff predates anything else we've found on 30 other sites," said John Seidel, a University of Maryland archaeologist directing the dig. "What we clearly have are 1690s artifacts, so that would have been about the time of the founding of what we know as Annapolis."
Pinning down the date is difficult, Dr. Seidel said, because the artifacts found on the site have become intermingled over three centuries.
"We have found some items from the 1660s, but none are in pure context," he said.
So far, broken plates, broken bottles, nails, a hand-held brass scale, and pipe stems have been found.
The remains of the forge -- brick rubble, slag and waste products from a blacksmith's operation -- are a little downhill from the cellar.
"One of the people who lived here was a tailor, and we found a button from a Civil War military uniform," Dr. Luckenbach said. "We've found a tremendous amount of things. They'll be analyzing this stuff for months."
The cellar is believed to be part of a house owned by Joseph Hill and listed along with a lot on a bill of sale dated 1711. Dr. Luckenbach said they believe that the house was probably built at least by 1690, possibly earlier.
The archaeologists have only until tomorrow to gather enough evidence to find out for sure, because a two-week extension granted by county officials for the dig comes to an end then. Any further delay might disrupt the timetable for the new courthouse.
"Much of archaeology today is just getting a sample of the information before sites are destroyed," Dr. Luckenbach said. "We never get to totally excavate the sites. What's sad is the ones we lose, that we don't get to look at at all. So these things are very exciting, but they've got to be finished by Friday."
The artifacts will be stored at the Maryland Historical Trust, the state's preservation agency, he said. Some items might be on display this fall, and a permanent exhibit is being considered for the new courthouse.
"We think it's big news, and it's just coincidental that it's the 300th anniversary of the city becoming the state capital," said Dr. Seidel of the celebration that will start in September and run through next year.
"We knew there was a potential for 300 years worth of activity, but that historic potential was tempered by the fact that there had been a lot of bulldozing and destruction as they demolished houses in the neighborhood, put up parking lots and expanded the courthouse in the 1940s and 1950s," Dr. Seidel said.
"When I first stood on that site and looked at the pavement, and where we'd marked off the old gas lines and where the fuel tanks were, I never guessed we'd find that kind of wealth under there," he said. "It's really amazing."