The news that a 19th century — maybe even 18th century — saber was uncovered on a construction site downtown made TV and print news last week. The saber, found near the site of the Chester Ashley mansion, whose remains lie under the Heritage Building West at Markham and Scott streets, could be Ashley’s, Historic Arkansas Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator Swannee Bennett said.
What does the saber tell us about Arkansas’s territorial history? Nothing that we don’t already know, other than the fact that perhaps Ashley owned such a saber, since the written record tells us he was a colonel in the Arkansas militia.
But what if the saber, at the time of its discovery, had been allowed to stay in the ground, and archeologists allowed a short time to record its exact location and take photographs of it where it lay and the features of architecture — such as the brick walls also exposed by digging at the site — or artifacts associated with it?
In the 1990s, the city had a historic preservation officer, a position held by Anne Guthrie. It might again. “We actually had a conversation with the State recently about funding a similar position in the future,” City Manager Bruce Moore said in an email to the Times.
“Every hole dug along the riverfront is likely to hit undisturbed 200-year-old deposits, and it doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to record what is there,” State Archeologist Ann Early, of the Arkansas Archeological Survey of the University of Arkansas, said last week.
“I would have wished that when this sword was first found someone would have asked any archeologist if the place where it was found was any interest to us or could tell us something about early Arkansas,” Early said. “Because we don’t know the circumstances of its discovery, we can’t really understand why it came to be there.”
The saber might not have been recovered at all if not for the sharp eye and good will of the excavator — Casey Findley, working for Gary Carpenter construction — and the fact that Bennett had asked the crew to let him know if anything important was uncovered. Bennett said he has been going by the site often, looking at pottery he believes dated to the Ashley Mansion’s 1900s incarnation as a hotel. He did not ask to study the site where the sword came from, he said; he said the museum has enough on its plate preserving the recorded history of the state.
Bennett noted that HAM once owned the property — now being developed into a parking garage — and co-sponsored a dig in the 1980s with the Archeological Survey in the eastern part of the mansion basement, the western part having been blown away by construction of the warehouse that is now Heritage West. The work turned up huge sections of the mansion’s columns, a basement fireplace and artifacts likely from the house’s hotel days. Developers (Allison Moses and Redden, now AMR) and Robert East Construction Co. provided site security and other assistance to the dig.
Owners of private property are not required to give access to archeologists or others interested in history. Federal property is a different story; archeological assessments of work there is required. In a “discovery situation,” state Department of Arkansas Heritage spokesman Mark Christ noted, only federal entities are required to notify the State Historic Preservation Officer.
The owners of the parking lot consented to turning the saber over to HAM.
Findley was operating a trackhoe on the southwest corner of the site when he came across what appeared to be old railroad rail. A cross-tie was under the rail, and the saber under the crosstie. It is a place, apparently, where many eras collide; the city dug a sewer line parallel to the track, and excavators guess the sewer line work removed one of the rails. Findley said he’s worked on several downtown sites before, and found bottles and such — but never a 19th century saber. He put it in the superintendent’s office.
Kyle Carpenter, Gary Carpenter’s son, took the saber to Bennett, who said it appears to have been made by the first American swordmaker, Nathan Starr. Starr started making sabers and cutlasses in the late 18th century. If it did belong to Ashley, it would have been lost after 1820 when he came to Arkansas.
The saber now lies in distilled water at HAM, which will handle its conservation in-house.
“I’m very appreciative of Kyle Carpenter … for thinking of us,” Bennett said. “We’re happy to have the sword. Out of context it may be but we’re tickled to death to have it.”
Bennett said he hoped HAM’s excitement about the object will show people that such things are worthy of care and conservation.
Ashley looms large in Arkansas history, being one of the first lawyers in Little Rock, which, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, was the site of just a few log houses when he arrived. He was the lawyer for the losing side in a dispute over land claims to the city (the parties later split the claims), practiced law with Robert Crittenden, secretary and acting governor of the Arkansas territory, and went on to be a U.S. senator.