Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Smallpox Bay Overview

Smallpox Bay Ruin, pre-excavation
The easternmost of our SIAP sites adjoins two small bays on Smiths Sound. The site is a standing stone roofless building ruin whose architectural features indicate an 18th- or early 19th-century construction date. Historical research suggests that the site may have been used as a quarantine station for inbound sick passengers and crew, since Smiths Island was one of two official mandated quarantine anchorages mentioned in Bermuda acts from 1731 through the early nineteenth century. Previous archaeology found evidence of mid-18th-century occupation extending into the mid-19th century, the latter with a distinct British military character. The 2014 season identified "G.R." (George Rex) and a broad arrow carved into the inside north wall, indications of an imperial presence. Intriguingly, artifacts recovered also included toys such as marbles and a cast copper alloy cannon barrel, suggesting the presence of children on an otherwise military site. Excavations within the ruin also revealed several postholes that predate the stone structure, as confirmed by the northern stone wall overlying and sealing a large posthole. A midden or heavily concentrated artifact layer discovered approximate fifty feet to the southeast of the ruin found at the very end of the 2014 season yielded several early 17th-century ceramics as well as numerous mid-18th to mid-19th-century artifacts consistent with the established ruin occupation dates.

This season's investigations had three main objectives: 1) deepen our understanding of the site's usage and occupants in the c. 1750-1860 main activity period, 2) attempt to discern a pattern among postholes cut into the bedrock that suggest a multi-period site with one or more timber-frame buildings predating the standing ruin, and 3) attempt to date any identified earth-fast structures in the interest to testing the hypothesis that Governor Richard Moore may have begun to build Bermuda's first town at this location in late July and early August 1612.
The collapsed southern wall of Smallpox Bay ruin. 
Note "Salisbury" on the lowest course of the wall.

Smallpox Bay Ruin suffered significant damage from Hurricanes Faye and Gonzalo in October 2014, which resulted in the south wall of the ruin collapsing. Curiously the interior side of the collapsed wall was revealed to have the word "Salisbury" carved into it through exposure to the elements, graffiti suggesting either the surname of an occupant or a personal or regimental affiliation with this southern English town. With the east and west walls currently not tied together and given the vulnerability of the site to southerly winds (the direction typical for a hurricane strike), the future integrity of the standing stone ruin is very much compromised. As such, we prioritized digital recording of the structure by tasking Miriam Beard and Alice Wynd, two veteran field school students, with creating 3D models before, during, and after excavations commenced (see below).

Site Supervisor Leigh Koszarsky directed excavation of a total of 26 contexts, completely exposing the ruin's interior in a clearing excavation designed to reveal posthole patterns. Strata was shallow and jumbled, and the presence of floor joist footings carved into the walls reveals that the house had a wooden, rather than an earthen floor.

Artifacts recovered from these units further strengthened the interpretation of a military-domestic blending: additional regimental and military buttons (XXth Regiment, Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers) were recovered alongside numerous civilian metal and bone buttons, copper alloy straight pins, hooks, and eyes, a thimble, a bone-handled brush, and a door key. Numerous mammal and fish bones and ceramics provide clear evidence of food consumption, despite the absence of a chimney and fireplace within the ruin. Leigh Koszarsky's additional historical research on the yellow fever epidemics that struck the 42nd and 56th Regiments lead her to interpret the Smallpox Bay site as a place where healthy soldiers - and perhaps their families - were sent to separate them from Barracks Hill, the epicenter of the contagion. This reading nicely accounts for the range of artifacts recovered and explains the presence of women and children at this intermittently used military site.

The clearing excavation revealed pronounced overlapping linear patterns among closely spaced postholes of uniform dimensions, as well as the building trench cuts for the construction of the standing ruin and a natural fissure.

Posthole patterns within the Smallpox Bay ruin, by size and depth. View facing west. A seventh posthole in the orange series was found in 2013 in a unit on the other side of the north wall.
Because the orientation of the standing ruin shares only a north-south orientation with the posthole patterns, it remains for future excavations to reveal the full extent of the earth-fast structures that formerly occupied the site. Posthole fill failed to yield any datable or diagnostic artifacts - which would be consistent with construction on a previously uninhabited location and a brief occupation followed by the abandonment of the structures. The midden site's lowest strata yielded both North Devon Plain earthenware and Surrey Borderware (aka Tudor Greenware), dating to the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

In sum, the 2015 season found clear evidence in the form of early artifacts and features that supports the hypothesis that Governor Richard Moore's briefly established 1612 town may have been situated at or near the Smallpox Bay site. The location makes sense, given the documented presence of the Plough in Smiths Sound and the ease with which a smaller shallow draft vessel like it could have moored close to shore at either of the bays immediately to the south. (A fifty-passenger ship like the Plough was probably in the 50-70 tons range and likely drew only eight to ten feet; accounts of the English landing at Jamestown in 1607 noted that the much larger Susan Constant, Godspeed,  and Discovery tied up to trees on James Island's shore.) It is unlikely that large quantities of early 17th-century artifacts can be recovered, due to the brief occupation period of the town, but a future clearing excavation strategy to the north, east, and west of the Smallpox Bay ruin has the strong potential of revealing the posthole footprints of several timber-frame structures, providing additional examples of the construction techniques of Bermuda's earliest domestic architecture.
Smallpox Bay Site Supervisor Leigh Koszarsky

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