Archaeology of the Derby Counting House III


The Excavations at the Derby Counting House

The excavation in progress.

Photograph by Andrew Sewell, Hardlines Design Company

The possible existence of foundations of the counting house had been determined by National Park Service archaeologists using ground penetrating radar, and so Salem Maritime applied for recreational fee funding to support an archaeological dig on the site. Once funding was approved, the National Park Service asked for bids on the project and selected a contractor. In August and November 2012, Hardlines Design Company conducted archaeological digs on the site of the counting house, cleaned and cataloged the artifacts they found and produced a report summarizing their findings. An electronic copy of the full report is available in the further reading section of this page.

The findings of the archaeologists firmly support the documentary evidence about the building. At the top, they found layers of twentieth century fill, probably placed by the National Park Service to even out the grade of Derby Wharf. Below that, however, they found several layers of earth and artifacts that dated to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The foundation of the Derby Counting House
In this view of the excavation, large foundation stones are clearly visible, along with other rocks that possibly supported building posts.

Photograph by Andrew Sewell, Hardlines Design Company

One very interesting note is what they did not find in the lower deposits. There were no remains of any timbers, and very few nails found. This supports the contract between Isaac Cushing, Jr. and John Derby saying that the store is to be taken down and removed. Since Cushing was to "have the Rocks & store for my trouble," the lack of nails, which would have probably been found in quantity if the shingles and clapboard were removed, tells us that he was most likely able to remove the building intact. This would have been a lucrative move on his part, as a complete warehouse could probably be sold for more than the scrap lumber.

Cushing getting "the rocks" might also account for the fact that only a partial foundation was found. Enough remained, however, to determine the east side of the building.

The layers of excavation, showing a clear layer of bricks.
The layer of bricks can clearly be seen in this photograph.

Photograph by Andrew Sewell, Hardlines Design Company

Another feature of the counting house that this dig was able to verify was the existence of the brick chimney that Elias Hasket Derby had built in 1784. A layer of hand-made 18th century bricks was found, which indicates that the chimney was broken up and used for fill once the building was gone. A sizable amount of window glass also appeared, probably broken out of the warehouse windows.

Throughout the layers of fill, the archaeologists found many small sherds of ceramics. These tiny artifacts help to tell us about what was being used in the houses and businesses of Salem in the 18th and 19th centuries. By themselves, some of these bits of ceramic are so small that they might not seem to contain any information, but at Salem Maritime, we are lucky to have one of the best archaeological collections in Salem, from the backyard of the Narbonne House at the site. Because the garbage pits were found behind the Narbonne House, we have many nearly complete vessels that were used in a middle-class house in Salem. What follows are a few of the best examples of ceramic sherds from the Derby Counting House, side-by-side-with their counterparts from the Narbonne House.
two pieces of similar ceramics
Left: SAMA32660 from the Derby Counting House dig. Right: SAMA 16204 from the Narbonne House

NPS collections

The polychrome sherd on the left bears a striking stylistic resemblance to the saucer on the right, which is an example of hand painted pearlware made in England from about 1795-1815.
blue-edged pearlware
Left: SAMA32687 from the Derby Counting House dig. Right: SAMA 22850 from the Narbonne House

NPS collection

The tiny sherd on the left is the rim of a vessel -it is too small to determine if it is a plate, bowl, saucer, or cup-that had a blue edge to the rim, much like the bowl fragment on the right from the Narbonne House. This blue-edged pearlware from England was extremely popular in the early nineteenth century as everyday dishes for a wide variety of households.
redware ceramics
Left: SAMA32826 from the Derby Counting House dig. Right: SAMA 10405 from the Narbonne House

NPS collections

Redware, which was made locally in Massachusetts, as well as in England, was used for everyday kitchen ware, and as jars for shipping and storage of foodstuffs and oils. Quite a few redware sherds were found in the layers of dirt contemporary with the Derby Counting House, indicating that these vessels were in common use (and often broken) on the wharves. The pieces shown here on the left are probably from a common jar, like the one on the right found in the Narbonne House Archaeology. These jars were generally only glazed on the inside to make them cheaper, and once the food was packed inside, they were sealed on the top by covering it with a fresh hog's bladder and tying it tightly with a piece of string under the lip. As the bladder dried, it created an airtight seal.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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