The area once served as a port for colonial Dover.
Sometimes big surprises lie right underfoot.
For example, take the area near Lebanon known as Forest Landing. Volunteers from the Archaeological Society of Delaware, working near the St. Jones River, have uncovered what are thought to be the remains of a warehouse dating back to the 18th century.
It’s been exciting work for the volunteers and for Dawn Chesaek, a University of Delaware alumnus who holds a degree an anthropology. Chesaek has been in charge of the field work at Forest Landing, guiding and training the volunteers as they look for pieces of the past.
It’s not necessarily easy work, she said.
“Forest Landing doesn’t look now like it did then,” Chesaek said, adding that human and natural forces have affected both the topography of the area and even the course of the St. Jones.
The colonial St. Jones River was easily navigable past the Capital City itself, and a bend in the winding course of the river made Forest Landing a fortuitous location for one of Dover’s two main ports.
The area now is part of the Hunn Nature Park and is immediately adjacent to Wildcat Manor, property owned for three centuries by the Hunn family.
Hundreds of years
Just about every volunteer in the Archaeological Society of Delaware takes part in organization’s digs because of a fascination with the past. When not digging trenches or sifting piles of dirt, they spend their time cleaning recovered artifacts and carefully recording the exact location of each find.
“For me, it’s just an interest in history and in trying to add to that history,” John Bansch, past president of the ASD’s Sussex County chapter said.
“It’s exciting finding things and it’s the history behind those artifacts that makes it interesting.”
“This is history,” added Delaware native Carol Hastings. “It just blows me away. You can pull something out of the dirt and realize you’re the first person to touch it in hundreds of years.”
The ASD membership was drawn to the Forest Landing site after professional excavations in 2007 and earlier turned up numerous Native American artifacts. This year they located a piece of pottery that would have come from the Wolfe’s Neck area near Lewes, an example of earthenware used there between 2,400 and 2,700 years ago.
But they were interested in more recent history.
Documentary evidence placed a two-story storehouse at Forest Landing as early as 1761 and also pointed to a nearby dwelling, most probably the house now known as Wildcat Manor. Orphan’s Court records from 1822 show what could have been two granaries or storehouses as well.
Initial fieldwork in early 2015 by Chesaek and her team turned up a well and a mass of bricks; by the end of summer volunteers had dug 60 test holes, finding artifacts in seven. By mid-January 2016, after sinking almost 300 test pits, diggers had uncovered the foundation of a house, underneath the Wildcat Manor house, as well as a brick wall indicating the possible presence of one of the supposed warehouses.
The latter find -- one of the dig’s most interesting discoveries -- almost was overlooked, said Carolyn Hodges, whose contributions have helped finance the excavation.
She and Chesaek had spent the better part of a miserably cold day turning up virtually nothing, Hodges said.
But then Chesaek found a bit of brick and a bit of mortar in one test pit.
“It was just the top of the wall, but that was our eureka moment,” Hodges said. “If we hadn’t found that, I was ready to give up.”
Teams worked on excavating a major portion of the wall over the summer, buried under what Bansch called an exceptionally deep layer of topsoil and rubble.
“Seeing the size of it was quite a surprise,” he said.
Additional excavations revealed other artifacts, including a broken chamber pot, used in the days before indoor plumbing, pieces of creamware -- possibly dinner plates or the like -- dating from between 1750 and the 1820s, and a button whose reverse side includes some yet-to-be deciphered writing.
With digging season over, attention has turned to cataloging the year’s finds, a task taking place in Hodges’ garage outside Camden where the artifacts, sealed in numbered zip-lock bags are carefully recorded and prepared for storage. It’s time-consuming but vital work that documents the discoveries and will allow professional archaeologists to draw out additional information about Forest Landing.
But the volunteers left one thing right where they found it.
Sunday, Oct. 16 was spent filling in the exposed wall, covering it again so future archaeologists may see it exactly as it was built.
“We’re still working to see what we’ve learned,” Chesaek said. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
To learn more about the Archaeological Society of Delaware, visit delawarearchaeology.org.