- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Last year a pair of archaeologists said they believed they had narrowed in on the site of a 1662 Catholic chapel in Compton.
But they were still looking for a key piece of evidence — a post hole that would prove there had been a building on the site. Last month, Scott Lawrence and James Gibb, aided by the Archaeological Society of Maryland, found not one, but several post holes.
“This is what we’ve been looking for for two years,” Gibb said, as he cleared away layers of dirt with a trowel, working in his bare feet.
The original St. Francis Xavier chapel was between the cemetery that is still there and what would have been tidal water leading to Breton Bay, an area that is now silted in.
The Archaeological Society of Maryland and the St. Francis Xavier parish provided more funding for another 10-day dig in June, which also unearthed evidence of a residence next to the chapel, perhaps the rectory, the home of the priest.
“We’re sure we have the chapel,” Lawrence said last Monday after the dig was finished.
Five confirmed post holes were uncovered – some lined up and some did not, but their discovery “tells us 100 percent we have the chapel,” he said, which would have been 20 by 40 feet in size.
“We were through the roof actually” when the team found the post holes, said Valerie M.J. Hall, principal investigator volunteering with the Archaeological Society of Maryland.
The chapel site is free of domestic-use fragments, whereas the nearby residential site has evidence of cooking – pottery pieces, chips from a fireplace, a rusted knife blade and pig, cow and deer bones.
Removing the surface soil there showed evidence of a colonial pavement or courtyard, made of stones and oyster shells, which could have led to a house, Lawrence said. The walkway would have kept mud out of the house.
“It’s a lot of weirdness here,” Hall said, looking over the primitive pavement.
Evidence suggested that Native Americans and colonists coexisted at the site, she said. The English could only bring a limited amount of basic living supplies across the Atlantic. If something broke or ran out, they would have turned to the Native Americans, she said.
“This really is the frontier in the 17th century,” she said, where Jesuit missionaries came over to convert Native Americans to Christianity. But the Jesuits had another role as well. “They came over as investors. They were invested in the colony,” she said.
“They were here by every indication, we just have to find the post holes,” she said, that would show evidence of a house.
There are no known records about the size of the house or if it was a priest’s home, she said.
The group dug down 3 feet, still finding artifacts of a residence, including a curtain ring for a bed, which someone of prominence would have used, Lawrence said.
The project in total excavated 75 sections, Lawrence said, with 26 of them unearthed in the latest 10-day dig with the help of volunteers and the Archaeological Society of Maryland. “All in all we had a really good 10 days out here,” he said.
“It takes a lot of time. It would be great to have another week or two to do this,” Hall said. “It’s like trying to put together a puzzle with half of the pieces gone and you don’t have a picture.”
Outlines of old grave shafts were frequently found during the dig. A 2011 study of the 4½-acre cemetery mapped 393 remaining headstones, “but there’s probably more than a thousand burials here,” Lawrence said.
This dig uncovered a broken headstone just below the surface of the grass.
The current St. Francis Xavier Church was built in 1731 and is about a half-mile south of the cemetery and original chapel site. The 1662 chapel was gone by 1719, past research had found.
The original chapel site is an exceptional find for archaeologists because it was never plowed for farming, so the soil was never disturbed. In Maryland “almost everything opened has been farmed,” Lawrence said.
The Society of Jesus order bought 850 acres at the Newtowne Neck peninsula in 1668 for 40,000 pounds of tobacco and farmed most of the land for generations.
In 2009, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bought 790 acres around St. Francis Xavier from the Roman Catholic Clergy for $14 million as part of a larger land purchase.
Newtowne Neck State Park remains closed to the public after World War II-era munitions were found along the beach in January 2012.