Uncovering Hidden History in Dover

As part of Delaware State Park’s mission to provide stewardship of the cultural and historic resources of our state, archaeologic investigations are conducted throughout state park lands and properties all year long! Our Cultural Resources Unit is supported by a team of volunteers known as the “Time Travelers” who assist with the hands-to-dirt work of carefully measuring, marking, digging and documenting every step of the way. Recently, the Time Travelers conducted archaeological investigations at the John Bell House in Dover.

Volunteer archaeologists dig square test plots in grass of John Bell House in Dover, DE.

Volunteer “Time Travelers” assist staff Archaeologist Melody Abbott in the hard work of archaeologic evaluation.

Led by Archaeologist Melody Abbott, the team uncovered a plethora of artifacts including ceramics, glass bottle fragments, bricks, nails, animal bones and small metal findings (clasps, connectors, pins, etc.) for clothing. As this site was used as a tavern outbuilding, some of these items may have been used on everyday articles of clothing or may have been remnants from the workspace of John Bell III as a hatter.

Artifacts discovered during excavation of John Bell House, including pins and clasps.

Straight pins, such as those seen here, have been used for centuries as sewing tools. The pins found this year are most likely sewing pins (referred to as “short whites”, based on their length (26-32mm) and diameter (1mm). Pins like this were not mass-manufactured until 1814. “Hook and eye clasps” have been around since medieval times, but were not machine made until the 1800s, like the one seen here.

The archaeological excavations were conducted as part of an ongoing excavation project started in 2007 with the renovation of the Bell House. This year’s excavations planned to investigate the early occupation of Dover, and to search for any evidence of other outbuildings behind the Bell House, such as stables or a privy area.

Previous excavations at the Bell House found artifacts associated with the tavern usage—including a variety of ceramic table- and serving-wares, glasswares, and kaolin clay pipes. In addition, pieces of metal print face were found, which could be related to the building’s use as a post office, or possibly a print shop.

Small typeface letters

These metal letters are movable type : used by printers, they were individually arranged to replicate text on a printing press or other printing device. These artifacts were discovered by the Time Travelers during a prior excavation of the John Bell House property in Dover.

The Bell House building, as it currently stands, is a reconstructed building which served as an outbuilding for the Bell Tavern, also known as the “Sign of the King George” and “Sign of the George Washington.” The tavern was open as early as 1699 and was acquired by John Bell in 1727. The building referred to as the “Bell House” was built between 1763 and 1781. The building served several purposes throughout its lifetime, including a dwelling, shop, and offices.

Display case of ceramic artifacts from the excavation site

A sampling of the ceramic tableware and servingware artifacts previously discovered at the John Bell House in Dover, DE.

Previous work by the Delaware State Parks Time Travelers has recovered plenty of important artifacts, including c. 2500-year old Wolf Neck prehistoric pottery from a site near Laurel, DE and historic artifacts used by 18th-century millworker families in Yorklyn, DE. Interested in being a Delaware State Parks Time Traveler? Email to join. No experience is necessary, but a short introductory course is required prior to joining any of the excavations. The program is open to anyone over the age of 14, but minors under 16 need to be accompanied by an adult. Younger students may be admitted on a case-by-case basis.

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