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In Search of the Still

Sunday, June 14, 2009

By Eric Tucker THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

PROVIDENCE —  Thomas Richardson II was a wealthy, 18th-century Newport merchant and captain, a slave trader and member of the city’s privileged elite who, researchers say, manufactured rum on his waterfront property and ventured to the Caribbean and Africa.

That much is already known. But his backyard may hold many more clues to his life and that of other merchants of the time.

A team of excavators who have already spent two summers at the Richardson property, digging up everything from Chinese porcelain to animal bones, will return this summer to complete their work at the site.

The researchers are hoping to uncover a large distillery they believe was used by Richardson’s slaves to make rum. The alcohol was produced in copious quantities in colonial Newport, helping make the city a commercial hub, and it was a key element of the so-called triangular trade that carried slaves, rum, molasses and other goods and supplies between Africa, the Caribbean and New England.

“Nothing was producing the income that rum was,” said Pieter Roos, executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation, which owns the property and is involved in the excavation project.

“Far more rum got shipped out of here than anything else, and it was the basis for a lot of the wealth of Rhode Island,” he added.

The work is being done as a joint partnership between Salve Regina University in Newport, the Newport Restoration Foundation, and the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Researchers accidentally discovered the Richardson property in 2007, when they were at the same site excavating artifacts they had traced to the 19th century.

Three-and-a-half feet into their dig, the team hit on a level of “organic, greasy” soil that they recognized as indicative of accumulated trash deposits from the 1800s.

“We sort of were under the assumption that there had been nothing there, and the actual discovery in the field forced us to take another look at the records,” said James Garman, a lead archaeologist on the project and chairman of the cultural and historic preservation department at Salve Regina.

Researchers pushed the chain of title further back, finding records of a Thomas Richardson who lived at the site from 1761 until his death in 1782. His home appears to have disappeared around 1812, Garman said.

Artifacts already uncovered a hint at Richardson’s wealth. Pottery and serving vessels such as punch bowls and platters used for entertaining have been found, along with Chinese porcelain, elaborate stemware and French plates.

The discovery sheds light on how affluent Colonial merchants lived.

“We’ll find out what kind of clothes he was wearing, what his family was eating, how big his business was,” Roos said.

Besides the remains of pigs, cows, sheep and fowl, excavators have found bones of sea turtles — a common soup ingredient at dinner parties for the wealthy, said Michelle Styger, a UMass Boston graduate student who has tried to reconstruct the family diet.

“It was kind of an event reserved for only those of the highest status,” Styger said.

Garman is also trying to determine what became of Richardson’s wealth. An inventory taken after his death revealed him as largely destitute, Garman said, and records show that he sought restitution from the British for financial losses incurred during the Revolutionary War.

The distillery was advertised for sale after his death.

This summer, researchers will try to uncover the distillery and the shed that housed it — believed to measure about 50 feet long by 30 feet wide. Ground-penetrating radar has shown faint traces of structural walls that Garman interprets as remnants of Richardson’s warehouse. The diggers have also located a line of very large posts — suggesting a wall or side of the shed.

The find would be significant; Garman said he’s aware of only one other rum distillery that’s been excavated in Rhode Island, although a couple dozen are known to have existed in Newport in the mid-18th century. The distillery’s size could reflect the large scale of the rum manufacturing industry.

“The scale on which they’re producing rum, which is fueling everyday commerce and the African trade, is going to be pretty startling, I think,” Garman said.

Roos said he expected the project would form the basis for student theses. The artifacts could be used in museum exhibits, but the distillery itself is not portable.

“I don’t think there’s been any archaeological excavation of any merchant site up to this point at all,” Roos said. “This is going to add to our knowledge, which is a little sketchy in some ways.”

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