Digging for history at Haddonfield's Indian King Tavern

Volunteers work alongside archaeologists at the site outside the Indian King Tavern museum in Haddonfield.
Volunteers work alongside archaeologists at the site outside the Indian King Tavern museum in Haddonfield. (Historical Society of Haddonfield)
Posted: August 09, 2014

Buried in the soil outside the Indian King Tavern museum in Haddonfield are remains from more than a century ago. Among things retrieved so far: broken pieces of glass goblets and pottery and an old coin drilled through the middle, all discarded there in the underbelly of a long-gone addition to the building.

Those shards of history, inside buried brick walls, lay untouched until last month, when an excavation crew of high school students and other local volunteers as well as professional archaeologists began work on the site.

"We can relate things that happened in the past to things that are happening now," said Lauren Lembo, an archaeologist with Hunter Research, the company hired to excavate the site. "It's a very personal connection."

The excavation is the first step toward rebuilding the old addition to the museum. The addition would have public restrooms, a reception area, and additional stairs. Garry Stone, an archaeological historian with the museum, hopes increased access will lead to more visitors than the 4,000 of last year.

Lembo held a piece of a saggar - a fireclay enclosure used to protect and contain finer ceramics during firing - and a broken beer goblet. The goblet likely came from the tavern, the ceramic from a nearby pottery business of the time.

"It's not like reading it in a book. It puts things in perspective" to hold the artifacts, Lembo said. "It gives you something more beautiful and deep."

The fragments paint a picture of what people were using - or throwing away - in 1908, when the addition was demolished. Municipal trash services at the time were less common, so people would have thrown whatever they didn't want into the pit as it was filled, Lembo said.

"We've really had an awesome opportunity to be involved with something" like this, Allison Baldwin, 17, a senior at Haddonfield Memorial High School, said while sitting on a porch behind the tavern during her lunch break from the excavation work.

Baldwin and a classmate, Kelly MacCluen, 17, learned about the project during their Advanced Placement U.S. history course last year.

"I didn't realize how much physical labor was involved," MacCluen said, pointing out a dirt pile the size of a small hill that they pushed over in wheelbarrows this summer.

MacCluen was surprised at the amount of pottery found during the dig; Baldwin's surprise was the number of animal bones that have come up.

The excavated space may have been used to store vegetables and beer or to age cheese, according to Stone. The Indian King was once a general store and a tavern that was expanded over the years. Two underground rooms that are naturally temperature-controlled were once connected to the basement. One is still open.

The former vault where the excavation is taking place also was once a cellar house, and then a basement for an addition that had a gambrel roof - often seen on barns.

The original house dates to before the Revolution, surviving through a British invasion and occupation - and then 21/2 sessions of the New Jersey Legislature, which met there in 1777.

The excavation, which is to conclude Saturday, is paid for with a $50,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust, with matching funds from the state Division of Parks and Forestry and the Haddonfield Foundation.

"It's really cool working here. I've driven past it all my life," said Dorothy Both, 29, who lives in Elmer but grew up in Haddonfield and is a field technician with Hunter. "It's a pleasure and a privilege.

"Same for me," Stone said.

cmindock@phillynews.com856-779-3237 @clarkmindock

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