Vol. 17, No. 31May 14, 1998

Olde New Castle

 Excavation reveals clues to early social customs

Stephen Shisler, senior anthropology major,with artifacts
from the Read House in New Castle, works with Lu Ann DeCunzo.

Could the pre-industrial revolution, New World aristocracy have been consuming conspicuously to show they were better than the rest of the growing mercantile class? Recent findings at the Read House in New Castle support that theory.

Lu Ann DeCunzo, anthropology, says scholars are aware of that aspect of Colonial America but what anthropologists want to know is broader than that. "We're trying to better understand what this new mode of consumption was all about beyond merely showing that you were wealthier. What were the social, political and economic implications?" Especially since there really wasn't a "middle class," just what was then called "middling folk," people engaged in trade who were increasing in number and buying power.

DeCunzo, her University students, plus high school students and volunteers from the surrounding community, have been excavating the Historical Society of Delaware's George Read House property on the Strand in New Castle.

When DeCunzo and her students began the project in 1995, they started in the garden behind the main building and found what they believe to have been two outbuildings, where people of that time discarded or stored household items. Some of the artifacts they've uncovered predate the George and Gertrude Read family, who occupied the house from 1767 to 1800. They actually date to the early 1700s, when Robert French constructed the original building.

There are pieces of glassware, pottery and bones that date from the beginning of the 18th century, closer to the 1730s.

DeCunzo said it was a time when the "middling folk" were growing. Judging by what she and her students have excavated, the notion that the more successful merchants were trying to set themselves apart from their fellows through conspicuous consumption has been reinforced.

"There's evidence of elaborate sets of glassware rather than the unmatched pieces that were customary for the time. The dining objects were highly decorated, more specialized in function and fairly expensive," she said.

The glassware, crockery, pottery, foodstuff, animal bones and dining and personal items found at the site had been thrown away in these abandoned cellar holes. The most dramatic evidence is in the dining utensils they discarded: the stems of crystal wine glasses, matched delft plates, cups and saucers, fine silver eating utensils, a variety of jugs and mugs as well as a large array of chamber pots (the 1730s equivalent of indoor plumbing), smoking pipes and domestic and food animals.

"They were living the lifestyle of the Colonial elite who owned expensive, beautiful material objects.... We are starting to see the origins of 'us' in these people," De Cunzo said. "It appears that they were trying to live a lifestyle that supported definite political and cultural goals that could be reinforced by demonstrating how well you were able to 'keep up with fashion.'"

She's careful to emphasize that they've only begun to find reinforcing evidence of this pattern of consumption but, if it continues, it will reinforce scholars' findings that the mercantile elite had begun to "elaborate the material culture."

No matter what they find, De Cunzo said she believes that an archeological site as accessible and prolific as this one is an excellent way to give University and high school students a firsthand sense of the past. The Historical Society of Delaware has set no limit on how long UD's anthropology department can continue the excavation, and De Cunzo's program is being offered to high school students as well as her undergraduates.

Barbara E. Benson, executive director of the Historical Society, said DeCunzo's project couldn't have come at a better time. The society had just finished renovating the structures and wanted to start on the gardens behind the buildings, but it had to be sure it wouldn't be destroying anything historically important, when DeCunzo came to the society with the proposal to do an archeological examination of the site.

"We've worked with Dr. DeCunzo on scheduling so that what's good for her research and her students comes at the same time that we need this kind of work done," she said.

Benson is enthusiastic about the University's inclusion of the community in the dig.

"It's a wonderful thing she's doing, because its giving these students an experience that's unique. As they dig there's a lot of supervision but also a chance for discovery," she said.

She's especially impressed with the fact that DeCunzo asks the high school students to double as guides for people touring the site.

This summer, from June 16 through July 25, De Cunzo is inviting high school students to join the dig, and the public is invited to participate through tours of the site, exhibits, publications, lectures and an Internet home page devoted to the dig. The home page at http://www.udel.edu/anthro/decunzo/read comes complete with photos and video/audio snippets of activity at the site.

High school students interested in "Digging the Past" this summer can contact DeCunzo at 831-1854.

-Barbara Garrison
Photo by Jack Buxbaum