A Program in Public Historical Archaeology

Co-Sponsored by

Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware


The Historical Society of Delaware



Program Goals

This long-term program in historical archaeological research, interpretation, and public education aims to

New Castle , established by the Dutch as New Amstel in 1651, remains the least studied North Atlantic coastal colonial capital. Its regional setting, circumscribed by the later urban growth of Philadelphia , Wilmington , and Baltimore , enhances its historical significance. A Historic Area Commission guides preservation of the National Historic Landmark district, and the New Castle Historical Society, Historical Society of Delaware, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, and Trustees of the Commons operate museums and administer heritage programming. New Castle 's unique, nonrenewable, fragile archaeological remains document the city's material, social, and cultural history. Together with the historical buildings, landscapes, and objects, they offer a spectacular opportunity to explore the past in the present.

Why Historical Archaeology?

Historical archaeology offers a special approach to studying people and their cultures—how they lived and how they thought about themselves, other people, and the world around them. Archaeologists are especially intrigued by “why” questions: why did people live as they did? Why did each household make the changes to the property that they did? Answering these questions requires all of the sources of information we can find—surviving things that people made and used, such as the house, its furnishings, and garden; things that were lost, used up, thrown away, torn down—that we dig up; documents that people wrote; and the memories people have of the past.

Historical Archaeology at the Read House and Gardens

Our Approach

Our first project, a multi-year study of the Historical Society of Delaware’s (HSD) Read House and Gardens, began in 1994. We are helping HSD plan to preserve and interpret archaeological remains on the museum grounds, and launching a long-term community history and archaeology program. Our research is focusing on: people (individuals and social groups), places (at many scales--property, city, region, colony/nation, world), histories (1650s-present: central themes include colonization, urbanization, the writing of history and the making of memory), and cultures (family; social, economic, and political interactions; community; consumer cultures).


The Read House and Gardens

The Read property lies along the Delaware River waterfront on the Strand , in the heart of the historical city. American Indians lived on the sand spits that became New Castle for generations before the European conquest. Later residents represented the city's merchant elite—the Frenches in the early 18th century and William Couper in the later 19th century—and political elite—most notably the property's namesake, George Read I, a key public figure in Delaware who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and whose son George built the existing 22-room mansion. On an adjoining property now part of the Read complex, an early Dutch settler operated a tavern, and other tavernkeepers kept a public house next door, throughout the 18th and into the 19th century. Beginning at mid-century, the Couper family transformed the property from workyard to formal and productive gardens. Philip and Lydia Laird, social peers of the du Ponts, purchased the property in 1920, and reworked the formal landscape again in the Colonial Revival style. Even today, the HSD continues to leave their mark on this evolving landscape. Each household comprised a diverse group of men, women, children, servants, and captive slaves whose daily lives and beliefs form the focus of research.

Excavations at the Read Property

In five summers of fieldwork, 1995-1999, our student archaeologists excavated 875 archaeological levels in 32 2.5x5 and 5x5 ft. units. We placed the units to give us a cross-section through the property, avoiding areas recently replanted. We had a special interest in the front of the property (bottom, map), where the earlier houses had stood. These excavations produced about 56,000 artifacts and 12,000 faunal and floral remains. The archaeological deposits extend more than four feet deep in some areas, and date from well before the Dutch first arrived at New Castle through the present.

We uncovered objects from 17th-century Dutch-American Indian exchanges, and well-preserved evidence of an early colonial kitchen, yard, well, outbuildings, and pits filled with household artifacts and food remains discarded by elite households ca. 1740 (units marked in green) .

This map shows the existing George Read II House, the French House (destroyed 1824, in which George Read I had lived), and the Halliwell family house (also destroyed in 1824). The dashed lines mark 17th-century property lines, and the light lines in the background mark the existing paths and landscape features. The black and green blocks are our excavation units.

Between the 1760s and 1830s, the Read family lived on the property. Actively involved in the processes of city-building, they left behind a record of landscaping episodes that reorganized the lot, responded to a major street engineering project in the early 19th century, and marked the recovery from New Castle's devastating 1824 fire. Beginning at mid-century, the Couper and Laird families, transformed the property from workyard to formal and productive gardens, and the layers of soil and their contents chart these landscape changes in detail. the HSD most recently through their efforts to replant the garden more in keeping with the mid 19th-century Couper scheme. Each project to improve the property has left its mark, and our task involves dating, defining, and interpreting each of these actions on the land.



From tiny fish scales to the iron hoops enclosing a barrel used to line an 18th-century well, the Read House and Gardens archaeological collection contains objects used in:




During and after the digging seasons, we have consulted the archives, analyzed historical maps and graphics, learned from colleagues' work on the city's architectural and landscape history, and designed public programs for adults and children. Student volunteers have cleaned most of the artifact collection, and begun to label, reconstruct, and research selected artifacts. Since 1994, our program has trained 70 high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, and inspired more than 200 undergraduate honors theses, research papers and webpages.


Archaeology at the Read Property: 2006-2007

Our Plans

With support from the UNIDEL Foundation, we will complete the collections and site processing, analysis, research, final reporting, and transfer of the collections and records to HSD by June 2007. Our team will clean, label, and catalogue the collections, and conduct a conservation survey. All site and collections records will be entered into our custom GIS program, BG-Map, and subjected to various analyses. Consultants will conduct specialized analyses of botanical, parasite, faunal, pollen, and phytolith samples. We will pursue in-depth research on particular artifact assemblages, time periods, and themes in the site's history. Training programs, workshops, and courses will prepare students and community volunteers to help us piece together New Castle 's past and present our findings to others.

Our goal is to incorporate many perspectives and 'voices' into our interpretation, and to present our research in different ways to many audiences. Our team will prepare technical reports and plans for collections and site conservation and management. These documents will report on our documentary and oral history research into the property’s material and social history, the results of our test excavations and collections research, and our recommendations for future research, preservation, and interpretation. Research papers, class presentations, community workshops and programs, exhibits, conference papers, and other publication forums will also offer all project participants opportunities to share their experiences and interpretations. The HSD, UD, New Castle , larger Delaware communities, our professional colleagues in archaeology, history, and related fields, and others who share our fascination with the past and its material legacy, number among our audiences.

Opportunities for Student Internships, Volunteer, Course Credit!

Beginning 1 March 2006 , and extending through June 2007, we will offer volunteer positions, course credits, and paid internships in the Read House and Gardens Archaeology Project. This spring, students in Anth/Hist 379: Historical Archaeology of the Eastern United States , will research archaeological objects from the Read House and other New Castle sites. Volunteer and paid internships will be offered at the University's Anthropology Department labs and in New Castle . Positions will include collections, conservation, database, editorial, and graphics internships. Students and community volunteers will label, catalogue, research, conserve, and house the archaeological collections to meet curatorial standards. Others will have the opportunity to work with our custom GIS program, and assist with site analyses and reporting. A summer mini-course in faunal analysis is planned.

Internship descriptions and application requirements will be posted as opportunities become available. Students in anthropology, early American culture and material culture studies, art conservation, history, art history, museum studies, and allied programs are encouraged to apply.


New Castle Community History and Archaeology Program

The UD Anthropology Department has recently joined the HSD, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, New Castle Court House Museum , New Castle Historical Society, New Castle Library, and the community of New Castle in a partnership to preserve and learn from New Castle 's material legacy--above and below ground--and from each other. The Program has initiated a "Hands-on History" workshop and field trip series for 2006, and is exploring other ways to promote communication among New Castle 's history and archaeology stakeholders, develop research and preservation guides and programming, and share our finds.

Unearthing New Castle 's Past : Historical Archaeology at the Read House and Gardens will benefit from this cooperative endeavor. Participation by members of all these organizations and communities will enrich our understanding of New Castle 's past and offer students excellent service learning opportunities. Our project offers the Community History and Archaeology Program an intriguing site and collection with which to think about the past and the present, and begin our collaboration.


Read House Archaeology Project Team

Lu Ann De Cunzo, Professor of Anthropology, University of Delaware , Principal Investigator, decunzo@udel.edu

Nedda Moqtaderi, Lab and Collections Manager, University of Delaware nedda@udel.edu


Botanical: Leslie E. Raymer, New South Associates, Inc.

Pollen: Gerald Kelso and Lisa Lavoid-Foote, Arizona State University

Phytolith: Irwin Rovner, Binary Analytical Consultants

Parasite: Karl Reinhard, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Faunal: Marie-Lorraine Pipes, Zooarchaeologist

Collections Conservation: Lisa Ann Young, Alexandria Conservation Services, Ltd.

GIS Program: Mark Glicksman, BG-Map, Inc.


For more information, see also:

Unearthing New Castle 's Past. http://www.udel.edu/anthro/decunzo/read/

Historical Society of Delaware . http://www.hsd.org/

New Castle Historical Society. http://www.newcastle-ny.org/nchs.html

New Castle Courthouse Museum : http://www.destatemuseums.org/information/Museums/ncch/nc_courthouse.shtml



Back to Anthropology Home Page