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Excavation at merchant's home continues

R.I. site could provide clues to 18th-century life

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / April 26, 2009
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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 Richarson 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 that they believe Richardson, or perhaps his slaves, used to make rum.

The alcohol was produced in copious quantities in colonial Newport, making the city a commercial hub, and 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.

The discovery sheds light on how affluent Colonial merchants lived.