Sandwich archaeology: Family has found 10,000 artifacts in their backyard
Before the couple moved in, the home had stood relatively unchanged since 1865, when then-owner James Whitley added the signature mourning drape carving over the front door (see photo above). “He did this to mourn the assassination of President Lincoln,” says Keyes, whose research reveals that Whitley was classified as a mulatto, but his mother, Leah Whitney, was a light-skinned African-American who posed as a caucasian, married a white man from England, and had lived in South Carolina, where she and her husband had owned a store. Keyes has concluded that “this added fascia to James Whitley’s home is a true reflection of the respect and love that he and other people of color had for the one president who had made their welfare a personal cause at great risk to himself, both personally and politically.”
Soon after moving into the house, the Keyes began their restoration project—and quickly uncovered the property’s second major story. As many families will do, the couple decided to expose some of the colonial’s original features, and this is when they discovered, as Tom Keyes describes, “hand-hewn beams done with an adz—almost 400 years old, and basically petrified.” Not only did the ancient wood reveal a deeper history, it also showed that the home had originally been a small cottage with an 18’ x 12-1/3’ footprint and an additional 12’ x 12’ ell, similar to homes from the original Plimoth Plantation, according to Craig S. Chartier of the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. The original home’s footprint is now the Keyes’ office; the other rooms represent later additions. The beams also feature apotropaic, or “witch marks,” carved letters that resemble “WA”, “VV”, or “IIIII”, but in fact were symbols for the Virgin Mary, or “Virgo Virginum,” in 17th-century script. The marks were intended to ward off evil, and the practice of etching them into house beams was common back in England; Pilgrims brought the custom with them to Massachusetts.
Chartier concludes that, “Certain facts about the house did not add up, including its proximity to the street and its orientation.” Keyes adds that the location of the witch marks, which were typically placed above doors and windows, helped to reveal that the actual layout of the home had changed. “The house doesn’t belong here,” Keyes says, while standing in the living room. “They moved it closer to the road around 1800, but construction evidence and dendrochronology of a sampling of beams brings us to circa 1650 for the original house.”
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