The road signs on Highway 235 leading to St. Mary’s insistently remind us of its destination: the first European settlement in the US state of Maryland. Along the way are the quaint horse-drawn wagon farms of the Amish, the “second settlers,” as they’re known around here. St Mary’s is a town of a thousand inhabitants founded in 1634 by the British. Its main tourist attraction is an archaeological site between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay where 17th-century buildings have been reconstructed. Last March and after almost a century of searching, archaeologists finally found the underground structure that was missing to complete the map described in historical documents: a fortification the size of a football field.
The underground fort hid pottery made by natives, oyster shell bricks, and projectile points, among other things. A hodgepodge of objects that finally proved the archaeologists right. And then, last October, they found a 350-year-old small copper cross with two horizontal bars, originally from Caravaca de la Cruz, in the northwestern Spanish region of Murcia. Specialists made the discovery public a couple of weeks ago. They still do not explain how that relic got there.
A few meters from the covered fortification, archaeologist Travis Parno, director of research at the Historic St. Mary’s City site, comments that his team is not used to finding Catholic remains in English colonies. The cross, about four centimeters long, “is a very particular religious object, very specific,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve found here before. When it appeared, I was very excited because a religious object as small as this means that it was deeply personal to someone.” Parno is more used to finding building fragments and pieces of dishes than crosses.
In the early 1630s, English settler George Calvert petitioned King James I for a land grant with the intention of creating a refuge for persecuted Irish and English Catholics. His efforts resulted in the enactment of the Maryland Toleration Act, making the state one of two British colonies in America where Catholics could practice their faith without reprisal. In the 17th century St. Mary’s they lived together with Protestants and Jews, among others. The religious freedom enjoyed by what was then the capital of Maryland (now Annapolis) makes it strange that more Catholic pieces have not been found. So far there is only one record of another Caravaca cross in the State, some 300 years old, discovered in the Charles Town settlement.
Specialists had been searching for the exact location of the St. Mary’s fort since 1930. The English archaeologist and geophysicist Tim Horsley, who managed to find it thanks to the sophisticated technique of magnetometry, maintains that the cross “was clearly a valuable possession” for those who Whether he brought it from England or traded it with some Native American. “It is something that is going to be very difficult to explain. Through archeology we can come up with theories and write suggestions. But we may never know for sure,” he says over the phone.
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The fame of the virtues of the cross of Caravaca, to which powers of protection against evils were attributed -particularly storms and lightning- added to the plenary indulgences that Roman Pontiffs granted to the owners of the object, “generated a significant demand for pieces”, according to Indalecio Pozo Martínez, director of the Vera Cruz Museum in Caravaca. “That, to a great extent, explains the presence of Caravaca crosses in many places and their appearance in archaeological sites, from Prague to Maryland.”
Parno does not agree with any explanation, but believes that the most likely scenario is that she was brought there by an English Catholic, or a Jesuit missionary. “We know that the Jesuits had strong ties with Spain and that at the beginning of the 17th century the Caravaca crosses were present throughout Europe.” Also in territories of America, and some colonies of the Far East and Africa. Before embarking for the New World, the Italian Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino commissioned the purchase of “30 or 40 dozen little Spanish or Caravacensi crosses” to “distribute to the natives”, according to what he narrates in his epistolary, quoted by Pozo Martínez in an email.
Historic St. Mary’s City is scheduled to open a new visitor center in 2024, where the religious object will feature prominently among other valuable artifacts discovered in the fort. They have already collected 100,000 pieces and, according to Parno, they hope to excavate the area for another decade or two. At the site, where archaeologists have been working for half a century, 6.5 million objects have been found. And that they have only combed 5% of their 800 hectares.