2018-03-22 / Front Page

The Newport Spring Archaeologists

Experts Reveal City Spring Initial Findings
By Jocelyn O’Neil


In the foreground, left to right: Michele Concas and Adriano Morabito, of the Roma Sotterranea, an Italian association specializing in urban speleology, and Nick De Pace, Prof. of Architecture at Rhode Island School of Design. In the background (not shown): Dr. Jon Marcoux of Salve Regina University’s Noreen Stoner Drexel Cultural and Historic Preservation Program, with archaeology students. (Photo by Erick Gottlieb) In the foreground, left to right: Michele Concas and Adriano Morabito, of the Roma Sotterranea, an Italian association specializing in urban speleology, and Nick De Pace, Prof. of Architecture at Rhode Island School of Design. In the background (not shown): Dr. Jon Marcoux of Salve Regina University’s Noreen Stoner Drexel Cultural and Historic Preservation Program, with archaeology students. (Photo by Erick Gottlieb) A team of subterranean underground water structure experts said at a public workshop in Newport on March 15 that evidence suggests that the stone structure uncovered last November is the original town spring that the city established around 1639.

The Newport Historical Society, in collaboration with the Newport Spring Leadership Committee (NSLC), hosted the workshop attended by more than 150 people to reveal the recent findings that halted remediation work.

A report prepared by the NHS for the Newport Spring Leadership Committee in February 2016 titled, “Report on the Newport Spring Site: Its History and Significance,” describes the journey that led up to the workshop.


Looking south with camera aimed down, showing intersection of the straight and curved walls. The arrow indicates what appears to be iron staining resulting from water flow. (Image from Newport Environmental) Looking south with camera aimed down, showing intersection of the straight and curved walls. The arrow indicates what appears to be iron staining resulting from water flow. (Image from Newport Environmental) In 2014, several citizens, including Lilly Dick, chairwoman of the Newport Spring Leadership Committee, approached Ruth Taylor, executive director of the NHS, to help determine if there was public interest in keeping the site from further development.

The consensus was that the site should be purchased and removed from the commercial market, though no particular use was endorsed. It was also noted that the site sits within Newport’s Historic District and any construction would require Historic District Commission approval. The NSLC went on to raise the money to purchase the south lot, and it raised additional funds to take care of environmental remediation and to plan for the future disposition of the site.

With the help of private donations, in 2015, the NSLC purchased Coffey’s gas station at 48 Touro St., located at the intersection of Spring Street and Courthouse Street, with the hope of preserving the rumored location of the town’s original spring.

Plans for the site, including a modified traffic pattern, were unanimously approved by the Newport City Council in August 2017. (See “Historic Cistern Discovered at Spring Site,” NTW Dec. 12, 2017).

L+A Landscape Architecture of Newport, led by principal Ron Henderson and Tanya Kelley, a landscape designer with the firm, have been tasked with designing plans for the public space.

“There may be a water feature incorporated into the final design,” Kelley said at an Oct. 19 meeting at the Newport Public Library, adding that groundwater contamination in the area makes a natural spring impossible to include.

Whether or not the spring site findings will influence the final design is yet to be determined. The firm hopes to have the designs completed by spring 2019.

In order to document and evaluate the structure’s possible association with the spring, an archaeological study was initiated by Nick De Pace, an architect and faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design with expertise in the archaeological documentation of ancient structures and subterranean water systems.

To assist in the exploration, De Pace contacted speleologists Adriano Morabito and Michele Concas from the Roma Sotterranea, an Italian association specializing in urban speleology; speleology is the scientific study of underground water systems.

De Pace began his presentation with evidence supporting the theory that this is the original spring site, including the presence of horizontal pipes running through the spring box, indicating that the water is being led away from contamination and sectioned off from a larger source of water.

“There is evidence of the hydrological cycle,” he said. “This isn’t a dead spring; it’s very much alive!”

He said that water flowing into and filling up the structure is a sign that the cistern is tapped into a main “vein” of groundwater. De Pace said the “d-shaped” stone cistern held the water that was obtained through a “spring box,” a structure that allows groundwater to be acquired from a natural spring.

Bluestone and slate slabs found during the excavation show imperfect lines and markings. This suggests that despite a craftsmanship flaw, the stone was still used, showing intent.

Dr. Jon Marcoux of Salve Regina University’s Noreen Stoner Drexel Cultural and Historic Preservation Program verified De Pace’s evidence.

Marcoux, along with two Salve Regina University students, waded through the cold, thick mud and sediment for more than a week, weaving together the tiny fragments they discovered, which could have been caused by the construction or the excavation of Coffey’s gas station, Marcoux said.

“Talk about serendipity,” he said. “These [10,000-gallon gas] tanks are literally three to four feet away from the cistern.”

If the potential destruction of the historical sight wasn’t due to serendipity, how the archaeological team obtained the latest camera and scanning technology might have been.

Kevin Rinaldi-Young walks to work every morning past the spring excavation site. As a representative for the Swiss-based company, Leica Geosystems, Rinaldi-Young and his co-worker, Mark Simpson-Daniel, were familiar with the mapping technologies typically used to capture and record such data. But Rinaldi-Young also knew of a new product that would far surpass the devices being used at the site.

“I just kind of walked up to them and blurted out, ‘Hey, do you guys want to 3-D scan this site? I’ve got this really good piece of technology,’” he said.

He was talking about the BLK360, which, according to the company’s website, is a “simplified reality capture technology for architecture, engineering and construction firms that need a one-step process to collect data.”

Dick closed the workshop by stressing the need for continued funding, especially in light of the recent discoveries. “There is still much analysis and research that needs to be done,” she said.

Morabito pointed out the importance of the project from a historical standpoint.

“And because we do believe that the study, research and preservation of archaeological and historic sites is an indispensable moment of every development that is taking place in a city with a past, it doesn’t matter if the past is 3,000 years ago or 200 years ago,” he said.

“The past is a legacy we don’t have the right to waste or destroy for our generation and the generations to come.”

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