MIDDLETOWN, R.I. – Students and faculty from Salve Regina University and the University of Massachusetts Boston are in the final days of the first comprehensive archaeological survey of the 280-year-old Whitehall House.
Whitehall currently operates as a museum run by The Whitehall Committee of The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.
“Working at Whiteahll gives us a tremendous opportunity to partner with an organization that takes its obligation as caretakers of history very seriously," said Dr. James C. Garman, associate professor and chairman of Salve Regina’s cultural and historic preservation program who serves as co-director of this summer field school in historical archaeology. "We're hoping by working together we're able to augment that appreciation."
In the past few weeks, 14 graduate and undergraduate students from UMass-Boston, Stonehill College, Sweet Briar College and Salve Regina are conducting surveys of the property that combine history, geo-physics and archeology.
“Every excavation unit has found evidence of 18th and 19th century buildings on the site,” Garman said. “There’s a tremendous lot of 18th and 19th century artifacts … including vessels from its brief use as a tavern. The nice thing about this survey is it’s a real interdisciplinary study that brings different approaches to the past.”
Dr. David Landon, associate director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at UMass Boston is also directing the survey.
Whitehall is an iconic structure that dates from at least 1729, when George Berkeley purchased land and a dwelling house from Joseph Whipple. Berkeley, an Anglican bishop and philosopher, had arrived in Newport to raise funds for a college he hoped to establish in Bermuda. While living at Whitehall he wrote Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, largely regarded as his most significant work.
Frustrated by his inability to raise funds for his college, Berkeley left Newport in 1731. Whitehall then served a multitude of purposes: gentleman’s tea house and coffee house (1740-1774), a refuge for Tory merchant Silas Cooke, Jr., and then as a tenant farm occupied by the Brown family for most of the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America rescued the house from its derelict state, establishing Aquidneck Island’s first historic house museum.
Preliminary results from the first year of investigation are extremely promising, and show that the buried history of the site is well preserved. Test excavations uncovered partial foundations of at least four 18th and 19th-century outbuildings. Numerous old nails, bricks, and similar architectural materials found in the excavation document the history of construction and destruction of these buildings. The student excavators have also recovered hundreds of artifacts from the site, including shards of 18th and 19th-century pottery from England, Germany, China, and America; broken bottles and pipe fragments from the use of Whitehall as a tavern; and an assortment of buckles, buttons, and personal artifacts.
After fieldwork at the site is completed on July 2, artifacts recovered from the site will be cleaned and catalogued at Salve Regina University’s Community Preservation Laboratory.
Students and faculty from both institutions will then prepare a preliminary report describing the results of the project. This report, coupled with additional historical research, will be used to help The Whitehall Committee continue its mission to preserve and interpret Whitehall.