University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 2/1996
Uncovering history in the garden
     When one thinks of archeological excavations or "digs," old
pottery, long-hidden foundations, shards of rusted metal and an
occasional bone may come to mind.
     Last summer, however, four University students and several
community volunteers worked on a project unearthing a different
segment of the past-an area's early landscape. The four-week
effort occurred on The Strand, a street in Historic Olde New
Castle, Del., only one block from the banks of the Delaware
     "Unearthing New Castle's Past: Archaeology in the Gardens at
the Read House" was a joint undertaking of the Historical Society
of Delaware and the UD Department of Anthropology, and was
directed by Lu Ann De Cunzo, assistant professor of anthropology.
     A specialist in American historical archaeology, De Cunzo
explains that landscape projects are an important way to
reconstruct the past, particularly by using evidence and remains
of prior land settings to help researchers determine how and why
a site was created and how it was used.
     Study sites can be as small as a formal garden, kitchen
garden or even a work yard. They also can be as large as a town
or cityscape.
     In the case of New Castle's Read House, De Cunzo says, the
historical society thinks that the surrounding yard area has
changed little since the formal gardens were established in 1847.
De Cunzo's objective was to determine if that assumption is
correct, and, if not, to discover to what extent things have
changed from the original design.
     To accomplish this goal, project participants employed
traditional excavation techniques, document research and analysis
of soil, microscopic mineral deposits, old seeds and organic
     In addition, she says, the society has a significant number
of photographs of the area from the 1880s to the present. This,
De Cunzo says, was both unusual and fortunate.
     The 18th-century house was the home of George and Gertrude
Read from 1767 to ca. 1800. George Read was a signer of the
Declaration of Independence. The original home burned down during
the Great Fire of 1834. It was rebuilt, and the formal garden is
believed to date from 1847.
     Under a hot July sun, in the midst of the summer's first
heat wave, De Cunzo and her volunteers raced to complete the last
of three, 5-foot square holes, each about 3-feet deep.
     She knelt down and pointed out older brick walkways-set in
distinct patterns and made of different materials-that had been
laid and used sometime in the 1800s. This indicated that the
level of the present garden was about a foot lower than it is
     De Cunzo said that, while not specifically seeking more
traditional pieces that offer clues to the past, she and her
students discovered thousands of artifacts-including cow and pig
teeth, fish bones and oyster shells.
     All the uncovered items eventually combine to provide clues
that will help present-day scholars, historians and museum
caretakers paint a more accurate portrait of the past.
     A major objective of the landscape archaeology project, De
Cunzo says, was to determine if there was public interest in the
work being conducted at the site.
     The positive answer came when more than 200 people visited
the excavation project in the gardens during a four-hour, public
open house. Some of the visitors even pitched in and helped clean
and sift the artifacts.
     The initial information gained from the Read Gardens
project, which De Cunzo says she hopes to continue working on for
several years, will improve the understanding of New Castle's
history, changing environment, family life, commerce, social life
and culture.
     The project, she says, will produce information that is
essential for designing a long-term research program at the site.
This historical, anthropological research program would involve a
holistic, integrative, multifaceted approach, where many sources
of evidence would be combined to explore the way the past existed
on both a social and cultural level.
     The "hands-on" effort, she says, also serves as an important
and accessible training ground for students and area volunteers.
     "It's difficult to get experience in the field of
archaeology," says Tim Layton, a junior anthropology major from
West Chester, Pa. "For me, this project was an ideal opportunity
to get critically needed experience."
     Ian Janssen, a senior anthropology major from Dover, says he
had done research on the George Read property in previous courses
and for an independent study project.
     "I was happy to be here and see how what I learned
previously applied," Janssen says, "to see what was here before
and what actually is here now."
     Sophomore Keith Adams of Hockessin is interested in English
pottery. "It was exciting for me to see the assemblage of
artifacts," he says, "especially the ceramic fragments that came
out of the ground, and to associate them with certain time
     Senior Nedda Moqtaderi of Wilmington is an art conservation
major with a minor in anthropology. She says she was thinking of
shifting the focus of her study. The excavation was an
opportunity to gain experience and help her make a decision.
     "I loved it," she says. "It wasn't so important finding the
stuff, but rather seeing it and realizing that it's been under
the ground for 200 years and no one else has seen it."
     Project director De Cunzo says the "treasure-hunting" aspect
of excavation work always plays some part in each participant's
interest, whether they be students or experienced scholars.
     "We try not to emphasize it," she says, "but there is that
part of it. When someone finds something, others will gather
around to look. I've tried to let the students take major
responsibility for much of the work here. When they find
something, and they all gather to look at it, sometimes it's hard
for me not to tell them, 'Okay, get out of that hole and let me
in now.'"
     De Cunzo says researchers spend about three hours in the
laboratory for every hour digging at a site. And that, she
explains, is time spent cleaning and logging material. Additional
time is spent on research and analysis.
     Ask De Cunzo what she likes about her work and she doesn't
take long to respond.
     "The diversity of it," she answers, "from getting dirty to
working in the archives to examining objects to interpreting them
in terms of the culture."
     But, she admits, as a landscape anthropologist, it's
difficult for her to keep her mind from focusing on what may be
waiting to be discovered only a few feet below the surface.
     "I find I'm always looking at the ground while I'm walking,
wondering what I might be passing over," she says. "It's an
occupational hazard."
                              -Ed Okonowicz, Delaware '69, '84M