By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
They are the everyday items of daily life, tossed off or abandoned by people long gone to their graves, that 300 years later have become the stuff of history.
A button, a bottle, a toothbrush and 300,000 other ordinary relics from colonial-era plantation life on the banks of the Potomac are now historical artifacts, to be examined, admired and cataloged by those who take stock of bygone days.
The items are coming home to the place where they were discovered more than two decades ago, the spot beside the river once known as Oxon Hill Manor or the Addison plantation.
Now it is the site of the glitzy new National Harbor mega-development in Prince George's County, and some the best of the artifacts will be put on display there.
They reflect the wealth of that era's elite. Perhaps not the garden shears, but certainly the bottles emblazoned with the family name, Addison, and the fancy buttons, ornate furniture knobs and even the toothbrush.
"This is pretty high class," Patricia Samford, director of the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory, said as she surveyed some of the pieces wrapped in sealed plastic bags. "A lot of people didn't have the money to adorn their clothing with these types of buttons, or furniture with these kinds of knobs."
Marveling at the preservation of some of the items, Samford held up an onion-shaped glass bottle, dating to the early 1700s. Next to it was a piece of a metal bottle cap inscribed with the letter "A." Another bottle seal plainly reads "Addison."
The Addisons, apparently wealthy English merchants, used slave labor to grow tobacco, oats and corn on property beside the Potomac that John Addison bought and began expanding in 1687. His descendants sold the land to Zahariah Berry in 1810, and it passed through various hands before the manor house burned down in 1895.
Over the centuries, many things appeared to have broken there.
Archeologists recovered more than 5,000 tobacco pipe fragments, pieces of 56 wine bottles bearing the letter "A," and fragments of more than 2,000 bowls, pitchers, water glasses and pieces of stemware.
The archeologists and a representative for the National Harbor developers, the Peterson Cos., will comb through the collection to decide which pieces best illustrate life on the Addison estate.
"We're in the process of making it happen," said Jennifer Stabler, an archeologist and planner coordinator with the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission. "We've met with the developer, and we have been out to the site."
Stabler said that in the next few years, some objects will probably be on display at the visitors center, and photographs of some artifacts might be displayed on panels throughout the development.
"It's an amazing collection to have something like this survive," said Rebecca J. Morehouse, the collections manager at the state laboratory.
Morehouse said the artifacts include a brick with three indented paw prints, a mug probably used for coffee and two domino pieces made from bone, as well as the bone handle of a toothbrush.
"It's pretty obvious that they were one of the state's wealthiest families," Morehouse said.
It has taken almost 20 years for the artifacts to make their way back to National Harbor because they were part of a custody battle between National Harbor developer Milton Peterson and John Milner Associates, a preservation firm hired by the property's former owner, John T. Lewis.
Before Peterson took possession of the land, Lewis, who also wanted to build a massive development on the waterfront property, began excavation on the site.
After Peterson bought the property, he was unable to proceed until he resolved a dispute with Milner, who wanted Peterson to pay $1 million for work his company was supposed to do under an agreement with Lewis.
The state trust intervened, reaching an agreement in 2000 that allowed Peterson to pay $300,000 over three years to the Maryland Historical Trust.
The agreement also freed Peterson from any legal or financial obligation to Milner or any other third party for prior excavation work.