Archeology

The Past

What did Boones Chapel look like 300 years ago when it was built about 1710?

St Peters ChapelWe've recently learned that Boones Chapel was modest in size by today's standards, about 20' wide by 40' long, likely having a white-washed clapboard exterior. It had a brick foundation held together with oyster shell mortar, several windows that were difficult to see through, and probably a roof protected by hand cut wood shake shingles. The interior walls had been plastered and painted. The windows allowed sunlight and summer breezes to enter the chapel.

The chapel was located within a sharp bend in a dirt road that at one time connected the Alexandria Ferry where it crossed the Potomac River with the town of Nottingham on the Patuxent River. Facing southeast, the chapel sat on a gravel ridge overlooking the tobacco fields of Boones Farm. It was surrounded by cleared land, either pasture or tobacco fields, and four white oak trees, one of which survives today. The graveyard surrounding the chapel was planted with periwinkle likely brought over from England.

The Chapel of Saint Peter, shown at right, likely resembles Boones Chapel.

The Present

chapel siteToday the chapel site (photo at right) is surrounded by an oak/poplar woodland with two large poplars growing within the chapel footprint. What once was a main road, is now a dead end private drive. Three sets of gravestones still stand (one set inside the chapel footings); according to the dates on the stones these were added to the graveyard after the chapel succumbed to the ravages of time. A few rapidly deteriorating wooden crosses can be spotted in the woodland shade, but most graves are marked only by depressions. The ground is covered with deep green periwinkle that brightens the terrain with blue flowers in the spring. One giant white oak tree marks the chapel property, but there is no visible sign of the chapel or where it once stood.

chapel digDigging History

In the late 1980s archeologists surveyed the area and located what appeared to be the remnants of the chapel footings on the south side of the giant oak tree. Indeed this is where most of the bricks and other artifacts have been found.

To answer some of the many questions about Boones Chapel without causing major disruption of the site, a limited amateur dig was recently begun. A probe of the top two to four inches of soil yielded bricks that were gently uncovered, but not moved. The location of each brick was marked on a grid and many were photographed before being recovered with soil, vegetation, and leaves.

Foundation Bricks

The chapel rested not on brick piers or pilings, but on short brick walls that were three bricks wide and held together with mortar. Three parallel support walls were located ten feet apart, indicating that the chapel had an exterior width of twenty feet. The longest brick foundation wall seems to indicate that the chapel was forty feet long, and possibly had a brick walkway leading to the front door.

brick wall bricks and mortar
Foundation walls three bricks wide were uncovered a few inches below the surface. Aligned in a variety of patterns, the bricks were often disturbed by burrowing animals and tree roots that pushed them aside and sometimes brought them to the surface. Notice the pieces of mortar surrounding the broken bricks pushed up by the growing tree in the right photo.

During the 1700s bricks were formed on site using clay mixed with water and kneaded until it could be shaped using a wooden mold, then sun dried until they could be fired, often in a kiln. The bricks were stacked in layers with wood that was then burned. The fire would last a week and was closely monitored the entire time, with more firewood being added as needed to maintain enough heat to cure the bricks. Sometimes the high heat resulted in glazing on one side of the bricks.

The bricks were likely made by hand near the chapel site, since the raw materials of clay and sand are abundant on what was Boones Chapel and Boones Farm. The chapel bricks vary considerably in thickness and size, which indicates several different molds were used. Some of the bricks found at the chapel site have a hard glazed surface, and some do not. Bricks with glazed surfaces were more wear resistant, so they were often used at building entrances and to form walkways--where ever there was a lot of foot traffic.

The mortar holding the bricks together was made with sand and calcined oyster shells. Taken from nearby waterways, the shells were ground and heated to produce quicklime. Some of the bricks recovered still have mortar attached, but where ever bricks were uncovered at the site, chunks of mortar were also found.

Window Glass

The window glass available in the early 1700s was shipped from England. It was hand blown with lots of imperfections. Generally the glass allowed light into a building, but a very distorted view looking through the glass. Most window glass arrived as small panes 6" x 8" or 7" x 9" in size, which meant that filling a window opening took several pieces.

Typically the panes were arranged in groups of four or six within a narrow wooden frame 1 to 1-1/2 " wide. Muntons between the panes were likely over one inch wide. The top window sash would have been stationary, but the bottom sash could be raised within the casing, then held in place by a prop. This allowed windows to be open during warm weather, but closed when it was raining or cold.

Glass shards discovered at the Boones Chapel site have a pale green tint and are less than 1/8th of an inch thick.

glass shard mortar plaster nail
SITE ARTIFACTS: Glass shards recovered at the site are pale green and very thin. Mortar chunks are generally light colored, although some pieces (like this one) show the color of the brick to which they were attached. The recovered pieces of plaster are flat and appear to have been painted. Even with rust distorting it's shape, this hand forged nail is clearly tapered and square with a hammered head attached. All wood associated with the chapel rotted away long ago.

The Exterior

As was often the case, Boones Chapel may have been built by those who would be attending services there. Since few professional architects were available, planters and carpenters did their own planning and building.

A few hand-forged square nails located at the site suggest that the building was wood-framed, probably with a clapboard exterior and wooden shake shingles made by hand on site from locally felled trees. The lumber used in the chapel construction would have been hand-hewn or hand-sawn to produce the exterior walls, flooring, roof shingles, and beams.

The hand-forged nails used to construct the chapel would have been made by the local blacksmith either at Boones Farm or a nearby community. The nails were square and tapered with a hammered head attached by the blacksmith. One nail at a time was heated and pounded into shape with a hammer on an anvil.

The Interior

The numerous pieces of white plaster found at the chapel site indicate that the interior walls were plastered with a mixture of calcined oyster shell, sand, and pig hair which was used as a binder. The floor likely was made of ten foot planks running side to side and resting on floor beams laid on top of the low brick foundation walls.

There is no indication that a fireplace was used to warm the building, which must have caused winter baptisms with icy water to be difficult for both infants and parents. And with only sunlight to illuminate the building, evening services are not likely to have occurred.

Visiting the Chapel Site

The current property owner seeks to protect Boones Chapel from curious tourists while learning more about the past. Researchers may contact the webmaster to make arrangements to visit the site which is not open to the public.

Sources

In addition to what has been learned at the Boones Chapel site, the following resources have been helpful: