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Historic dig drawing a crowd

President's House work

The 1833 penny that was found at the site.
The 1833 penny that was found at the site.Read more

Standing in an excavation pit 10 feet below ground level, archaeologist Jed Levin yesterday showed off the first finds of a weeks-long dig at the site where President George Washington once lived with his family and nine slaves.

"Hercules would have cooked here," Levin, of the National Park Service, said of Washington's renowned - and enslaved - chef, as he pointed to the remains of an L-shaped stone foundation wall, which outlined the kitchen's boundaries.

Most amazing, Levin said, was that archaeologists - through actual digging at the site, not from reading any written document - learned firsthand last week that the one-story kitchen, a separate building behind the President's House, also had a basement.

The National Park Service, working with a local team of archaeologists from URS Corp., has been quietly excavating the site at 6th and Market streets on Independence Mall since ground was broken March 21.

The goal, Levin said, has been to find the actual remains of the President's House - where George Washington, then John Adams, lived and conducted executive business from 1790 to 1800. Archaeologists also want to learn about life here 200 years ago.

A week ago, the crew hit "pay dirt" - actual remains of the President's House.

Walking around the 60-by-90-square-foot pit, Levin, surrounded by URS workers digging with trowels, showed other clues into Washington and Adams' lives. Adams, in contrast to Washington, did not keep slaves.

"We think this deep part was a cold cellar, like a root cellar," Levin said, peering into a deep hole by the rear of the kitchen's basement. "Way before they had refrigeration," people would store their vegetables in the ground to keep them cool.

And this, he said, pointing to the top of a round, brick-lined structure was likely an outhouse, a privy, or as they also used to call it back then - "a necessary," he said.

Privies are "like time capsules," he said. Since there was no trash collection in the 18th century, they were also the place to dump your chicken bones, broken ceramic plates and other garbage, he said.

And over there, he said, pointing to the top of another stone wall, is the rear foundation wall of the President's House. It was on that stone wall, first exposed by Matt Olson, 22, a URS field technician who graduated from Temple University last year, that Levin found an 1833 large copper one-cent coin with Lady Liberty on its face.

"You can imagine a workman," Levin said. "I think he may have purposely put a new penny down" on the wall in 1833 after the President's House was knocked down in 1832 to give a hint to future generations of when the demolition took place and new construction began.

Small retail stores, including a clothing store, were constructed on the site beginning in 1832 or 1833, he said. Those stores were demolished in 1952.

Above the excavation pit, visitors watched the archaeological work-in-progress yesterday from a wooden viewing platform.

Some got to hear Patrice Jeppson, a historical archaeologist and a volunteer at the park service's Independence Living History Center, explain what was going on. This site, next to the present-day Liberty Bell Center, was a symbol both of our nation's freedom and of enslavement, she said.

Here, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which made it a crime to aid a slave's escape and mandated the return of slaves to their owners.

Shamyra Gunn, 24, said after listening to Jeppson:

"I really think this is amazing to know we're standing in history, where slaves were, where our president was."

The viewing platform is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Excavation is to continue through the end of this month.

Artifacts, including the 1833 coin, are to be housed at the Independence Living History Center (143 S. 3rd St.). *