Belair Mansion (18PR135) is a mid-18th century, five-part, 2 ½ story, Palladian-style mansion and grounds located within the present city limits of Bowie in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Belair has been continuously occupied and modified throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The City of Bowie owns the property, which functions as a museum and public reception center. The Maryland Historical Trust holds a historic easement on the land and buildings.

Archaeological Investigations

Test excavations at Belair Mansion were first conducted by Stephen Israel (1976) and Susan Pearl (1984) to locate the original kitchen structure and other outbuildings. In 1990, James Gibb conducted data recovery operations in the east areaway of Belair Mansion. In early 1994, Gibb conducted Phase I/II investigations of the mansion, followed in late 1994 and early 1995 by limited Phase III/salvage archaeology.

After Gibb's December 1994 fieldwork in the parking lot area, Julie Ernstein of the University of Maryland's Department of Anthropology conducted test excavations on the terraced lawns south of the mansion to explore the gardens and compare them to other formal gardens at mid-18th-century Palladian mansions in the area.

Gibb's 1994 excavations demonstrated that the front yard area has changed several times. Stratum 3 appears to be topsoil, much degraded by 20th- and probably early 19-century landscaping ventures. Nonetheless, Stratum 3 yielded significant quantities of debris indicating that some household trash was discarded, if not actually generated, there. Analysis of the features, both in terms of their appearances and contents, failed to identify any domestic outbuildings, although what appear to be garden-related structures were identified. Archaeological study of the west yard in May 1994 uncovered the foundation of a building, possibly an addition, along with domestic refuse. Clearly, some outbuildings in which domestic activities occurred once occupied the front yard of Belair Mansion. In this respect, Belair may have resembled, conceptually if not in the specifics of design, the layouts of Mount Vernon and Oxen Hill Manor, but differed from the houses at Northampton and Melwood.

One or more brick structures (possibly those described in two 18th-century documents) were demolished as late as the second quarter of the 19th century. Perhaps most of the rubble had been removed from the site, but clearly part or all had been used to raise or level the front yard. Two surviving brick features may represent medieval-style exedrae flanking what may have been a garden. Both are oriented perpendicular to the long axis of the mansion. Unfortunately, both features were uncovered through mechanical stripping and it is impossible to state with confidence whether they precede or succeed the deposition of brick rubble. Field notes, compiled while cleaning and defining the westernmost of the two brick features, suggest that at least one of them may have predated the deposition of Stratum 2. The volume of brick rubble represented by Stratum 2 probably exceeds what the demolition of these two slight structures would have produced. If one or more of these possible garden structures predates the formation of Stratum 2, then the work yard had been transformed into a garden sometime before demolition in the late 18th or early 19th century.

Most of the sampled features appear to have been postholes/molds, a group of which forms a fence line. This fence remained in place long enough to warrant repair or replacement on at least two occasions. A family cemetery at the foot of the terraced gardens, created in the second quarter of the 19th century, suggests a transition from an elite, highly formal mansion and plantation to a less prestigious farm that revolved more around family than society.

Evidence of a 20th-century colonial revival period was recovered during the Phase II study in May 1994. Limited testing of the terraces in the south yard raised the possibility that the extant terraces are 20th-century reconstructions, if not pure fabrications without precedent on site. Architecturally, the paired hyphens and wings were added after 1886, and probably after the property's purchase by James T. Woodward in 1898. The earlier west wing, which gave the mansion house the appearance of a farmhouse with telescoping wing, was built in the 19th century and demolished prior to the addition of the new hyphens and wings. A 1936 photo depicts a greenhouse and boxwood gardens, with the east side of the mansion clearly visible behind the trees. Remnants of the stone foundation of the greenhouse and elements of the garden survive on the adjacent swim and tennis club property. This garden, likely inspired by developments at Colonial Williamsburg, and comparable to the greenhouse and formal gardens at Mt. Airy Mansion (also in Prince George's County), suggests a return to the formality and ceremonialism of the 18th-century governor's mansion.

Archeobotanical Studies

Gibb’s data recovery included processing and preliminary assessment of 28 flotation samples and 1 carbon sample. Flotation samples of unknown volume were examined, and the presence of various classes of plant materials was documented. From the 28 flotation samples, 10 were selected for more detailed study by Justine McKnight, including taxonomic identification of wood charcoal. White oak woods dominated the assemblage, with hickory, ash, maple, and minor amounts of red oak, unspecified oak, and beech. Nutshell was limited to two fragments: a thick-walled hickory and a black walnut shell. The remains of cultivated plants included wheat (four specimens) and maize (two specimens). A total of nine non-carbonized (modern) seeds were recovered, including tulip poplar, carpetweed, raspberry or blackberry, and jimson weed.


Gibb, James G.
2002 Phase III Archaeological Data Recovery at Belair Mansion (18PR135), Bowie, Prince George's County, Maryland. Prepared for the City of Bowie Museums.
McKnight, Justine
2002 Analysis of Archeobotanical Remains. Appendix C to Phase III Archaeological Data Recovery at Belair Mansion (18PR135), Bowie, Prince George's County, Maryland. Prepared for the City of Bowie Museums.

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