Solution of letter puzzle bears stamp of credibility

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Solution of letter puzzle bears stamp of credibility

April 6, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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This advertisement appeared in a 1917 edition of Boyd’s Directory, a precursor of today’s telephone directory. It assisted in solving “The Mystery of the Rubber Letters” – a story that began with a discovery in the well at the Lee-Fendall House. Copy of advertisement courtesy Alexandria Archaeology
Do you enjoy filling in the missing letters when deciphering word puzzles? As I was working out letter clues with my 8-year-old son recently, I realized how much archaeology can be like word games. As Charles and I pondered which letters were needed to form words associated with good health, I remembered the excavation of a brick-lined well at the Lee-Fendall House in 1986. As archaeologists, we had our own words puzzle to solve: “The Case of the Rubber Letters.”

As we lowered excavators into the brick shaft using a heavy metal winch, a rope ladder and a safety harness, we did not know what was in store for us. By carefully water-screening all the moved soil, we found 2,913 artifacts in the first level of the excavation alone.

Many of the materials recovered related to the renovation of the house in 1906 by Robert and Mai Downham, as discussed in last week’s column. Many more were glass fragments in various colors –clear, aqua, light green, olive, amber. They once had been parts of bottles containing spirits and medicines.

Shaking all the excavated dirt through ¼-inch or smaller metal screening is standard archaeological practice designed to recover the smallest fragment. We took this process one step further, by washing down all the soil and artifacts in the screens with water. This step is essential in excavating wells and other wet or sensitive sites.

The water from garden hoses washed off the accumulated grit and illuminated the forgotten artifacts. As we carefully examined each screen for every artifact, bone and seed, three tiny white rubber letters emerged. What were they? Would we find more?

As were began excavating Level 2, we were overwhelmed by the quantity of artifacts thrown away in the old well. Again, thousands of glass, ceramic, metal and bone materials were discovered, as well as portions of eyeglasses and sunglasses. And 10 more rubber letter fragments appeared in the screens.

Reconstructed, the letters spelled: PAY _RA__IN NATIONAL BANK WASHINGTON D.C. ________E. DOWNHAM COMPANY

Apparently the letters once composed a stamp for endorsing checks by E.E. Downham, Robert Downham’s father. Perusal of city directories yielded an advertisement for the Franklin National Bank, which finally helped solve our rubber-letter mystery.

In a few more weeks I will continue the Lee-Fendall archaeology story; some important April events necessitate a short hiatus. In the meantime, visit the Lee-Fendall House to solve another mystery: Who etched his – or her – initials into a window? Call 548-1789 for hours.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.