Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Archaeology at the Conant House

The Aaron Conant House, which sits on the corner of Washington and Jefferson Streets at Strawbery Banke Museum, is currently undergoing rehabilitation by Bedard Preservation and Restoration.  The exterior of the house is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2014.  As part of the project, Bedard Preservation plans to rebuild a late 18th century addition to the house.  In advance of this reconstruction, we excavated along the extant foundation line to determine how deep the foundation was originally dug.

The history of the house is incomplete, but based on deed research, we know that the land was bought in 1697 by Captain John Hill, who built an early saltbox house on the lot.  John Hill sold the property to George Walton, a shopkeeper, in 1736.  The present house was likely built around 1750, based on early Strawbery Banke curator and architectural historian James Garvin's observations of structural elements.  In 1778, George Walton deeded the house to his granddaughter, Temperance Walton.  It was then sold to George Ham in 1791, who likely made some changes to the house, including raising the foundation and adding on a scullery to the kitchen.  The 1 story addition is visible on Sanborn Insurance maps from the 19th and 20th centuries (see the 1898 Sanborn Map, for example, with the Conant House colored in pink).  The house is currently named for Aaron Conant, a stage coach driver who owned the house from the 1834 through 1856.

During our excavation, we determined that the late 18th century builders focused on supporting the SE corner of the scullery foundation, and used minimal stones along the south and east sides.  Surrounding the existing foundation stones there was a good layer of fill that likely dated to around the 1790s when the foundation was built, including many large chunks of plaster that likely related to George Ham's renovations to the house.  Along the south side, below the plaster fill, we reached a nice midden (trash pit) layer, full of organic material, like bone, charcoal, and shells, along with a variety of colonial artifacts.  The artifacts from this layer are exciting in that they expand our knowledge of how the lot was used before George Ham's renovations, and can help us date this period of use.

In the midden layer, we recovered 4 pipe stems. Pipe stems are useful dating artifacts.  Historical archaeologist J. C. Harrington, who spent his early years excavating at Jamestown, realized in the 1950s that the diameters of pipe stems decreased over time.  Based on the typology his work developed, we can date the Conant pipe stems.  There were 3 with a 5/64" diameter, meaning they date from 1720-1750, and 1 with a 4/64" diameter from 1750-1800 (see Deetz 2010 for a published pipe stem typology).

We also recovered a few personal artifacts, including a bone comb, an 18th or early-19th century 5 hole bone button (the center hole is a product of button production), and a metal button, with a shank style that dates it to 1760-1785 (see White 2005 for dating bone and metal buttons).

There was a variety of stoneware and redware, including this mid-18th century Staffordshire redware sherd with engine turned decoration.
We recovered a variety of creamware sherds, most of which are from 1762-1780, including a handpainted flowered creamware sherd (c. 1765-1810).  The high concentration of creamware in the ceramic assemblage of the midden layer confirms that this area of the lot was in use after 1762.

From the fill surrounding the scullery foundation, we recovered a few sherds of pearlware, including a green, scalloped edge fragment that likely dates to between 1800 and 1830, and a blue and white fragment of mochaware with rouletting which dates to the 1790s-1890s (see Sussman 1997 for more mochaware).  The presence of these later ceramics along with the plaster in this layer helps confirm that renovations were made after 1790.

Hopefully our excavation and research, and this interesting collection of artifacts will be helpful in the ongoing rehabilitation of the Conant House!


Deetz, J. (2010). In small things forgotten: an archaeology of early American life. Random House LLC.

Sussman, L. (1997). Mocha, banded, cat's eye, and other factory-made slipware (p. 102). Boston: Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology.

White, C. L. (2005). American artifacts of personal adornment, 1680-1820: a guide to identification and interpretation. Rowman Altamira.

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