Peeking into Annapolis' past

This much can be said of the clientele at Archibald Golder's tavern in late 1700s Annapolis: They liked their oysters.

In an age before weekly trash pickup, they shucked the tasty mollusks and chucked the shells. Lots of them.


The tavern, once called the Sign of the Waggon and Horse, must have been a rollicking place, where visitors could fill up on food and wine and retire to a boarding room to sleep it off.

Two centuries later, the remnants of bygone revelry - massive quantities of oyster shells, along with 18th century tobacco pipes, wine bottles and toothbrushes made of bone - are being unearthed by archaeologists at 44 West St., about two blocks from the State House.


The artifacts offer clues about colonial-era life at the site once owned by Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton. That helps, because there isn't much left of the aged building, which has resembled a Hollywood set since modern additions in the back were razed: Peek through the front window and you see can sky.

But a complete picture of the property's history may remain buried forever. The Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission is allowing construction of a lobbying firm's new offices to begin without a full-scale excavation.

Think of it as putting a lid on the past.

"We're trying to strike a balance," said Jim Gibb, an archaeologist who consults with the preservation commission. While saving artifacts is important, he said, the property owner has a right to develop the land.

For now, the site is pocked with rectangular holes 2 and 3 feet deep where shovels were sunk. Old brick floors poke out, as does the outline of a brick-encircled well - likely a treasure trove, because wells back then sometimes doubled as trash chutes.

A limited exploration in late May and early June turned up fragments of a white salt-glaze plate made before 1785; ceramic tobacco pipes; combs, toothbrushes and a sailor's whistle made of bone; a pair of bone-handled knives and parts of wine bottles - along with a raw bar's worth of giant oyster shells.

Taken together, the items suggest the tavern was a boarding house that catered to seafarers and other travelers. The decent, but not outstanding, quality of the objects fits with what might be called a middle-class establishment.

"My guess is it wasn't a very elite-type tavern, nor was it something that catered just to local sailors," Gibb said. "It was somewhere in between."


Until recently, this dig might not have occurred at all. It was only last year that the preservation commission, which oversees exterior alterations in the Historic District, passed new rules on when and how archaeological studies would occur in cases like this. Before, such decisions were handled case by case.

"Without that kind of regulation, it'd be lost forever," said Dan Sams, director of preservation services at the private, nonprofit Historic Annapolis Foundation.

Still, some questions remain unanswered. Did French troops stay at Golder's tavern during the Revolutionary War? Archives show Golder was commissioned by local authorities to find housing for French troops in 1782, but whether he did so at his West Street tavern may remain a mystery without more excavation.

Other more fundamental blanks also have yet to be filled in: Exactly where and when did the original tavern stand? And just how old is the surviving two-and-a-half story structure, with its hand-cut beams on the second floor? Late 1700s? Early 1800s? No one knows for sure.

"Early 1800s would be the least wrong," said April Beisaw, an archaeologist with Andrew Garte & Associates. The southern Anne Arundel County firm was hired by property co-owner Phil Dunn, who is paying $20,000 for the dig and research.

"We definitely know more than before we dug," Beisaw said, "but there is still more we'd like to know if we could dig deeper."


Digging deeper could reveal much because, as the site evolved and changed shape, new layers were added, leaving intact what was underneath. That explains the two brick floors, one built on top of the other.

As early as 1760, one John Golder leased a dwelling and store at the site which then, as now, fronted a bustling commercial strip. But Golder died a few years later from mushroom poisoning.

In 1795, his son Archibald bought the land from Charles Carroll and opened a tavern that went by a variety of names, including the Pennsylvania Farmer, Mount Vernon, and Sign of the Waggon and Horse, according to Beisaw's research.

In 1798, a tax inventory found the buildings on the property to be "in bad repair." And by the time a man named James Hunter took possession of the tavern in 1812, it had been rebuilt and improved. Beisaw surmises that none of the pre-1798 buildings survived.

Over the next two centuries, the property changed hands many times. It became a restaurant, bakery, dry goods store and jewelry shop.

As its use changed, so did its appearance. Additions were built onto the back during the 1900s, including one of concrete block. The present-day facade sports a faux 18th century clapboard facade built in the 1970s.


That kind of birth and rebirth was common in commercial sections of old Annapolis. On Main Street, colonial buildings were replaced in the 1800s by ones with Victorian and Italianate designs. Some of those were later changed.

By the time the Historic Preservation Commission was established in 1968, all manner of modifications had been made to some of the 1,200 buildings within the boundaries of the Annapolis Historic District, although many retain old interior features such as fireplaces.

Dunn, the co-owner of 44 West, evinces respect for the historical aspects of Annapolis real estate and the ground beneath it. He speaks in awe of the time he glimpsed State House timbers that had been put in place with rope and mule power.

He may donate the artifacts from 44 West St. to the Maryland Historical Trust and says it has been satisfying to preserve the building's oldest parts.

"Even though you may hide hand-hewn beams behind sheetrock, they're still there," he said. "The next generation that [renovates] the building will find them."

The archaeologists make a similar point about what lies buried out back. Maybe in a hundred years, they say, new methods will make it easier to dig deep into the property.


But Gibb wonders if that's always wise.

"In some ways covering up a site is not a bad idea," said Gibb, the commission's consultant. "Archaeology is a destructive science. When we go in and dig, the only things that survive are the artifacts and the notes we take."

In a few weeks, construction is expected to get underway, as workers carefully sink footers to disturb as little of the ground as possible. An opening is set for Christmas, marking the start of the property's latest chapter.