Trenton-based archeologist Richard Hunter’s public lecture this Sunday, September 30, on potter James Rhodes at the Trenton City Museum — one of the events surrounding the museum’s exhibition “Trenton Makes Pottery: The Stoneware of James Rhodes, 1774-1784” — raises two questions.
The first is obvious and will be addressed that afternoon: “Who was colonial Trenton potter James Rhodes and why is he important?”
The second is a bit more perplexing: “How did the very English gentleman Richard Hunter become the go-to guy for Trenton history?”
Hunter is the founder and president of Hunter Research Inc., a consulting firm that provides specialized cultural resource services to public and private clients throughout the Mid-Atlantic and northeast United States. He is also the de facto connection to all things historic in Trenton.
While the talk will deal with one aspect of Hunter’s recent work, it also will connect with his decades spent laboring to piece together a city — one that for years never entered his thoughts.
“As an Englishman –– if anyone ever told me in the mid ’70s that I would spend the bulk of my career in Trenton, I would have never believed it,” he says with amazement. And well he should.
Hunter was born in 1950 in Wirral, England, a community separated from the port city of Liverpool by the Mersey River — and from Trenton, New Jersey, by several thousand miles of salt water.
A product of a specific time in England, Hunter says that his parents were people defined by their World War II experiences. His mother was a ferry pilot, women who transported or “ferried” aircraft from England to combat-bound airfields. His father was a parachutist who fought in Italy (Monte Cassino) and North Africa. After the war his parents settled into the more traditional roles: his father becoming a businessman with Imperial Chemical Industry, his mother tending to four children.
In 1958 Hunter found himself at Marlborough College, a boarding school, and there developed what he says is an interest in the history and the landscape that surrounded him. “I think I bring that to Trenton, caring about the place I live,” he says. “It’s basic to be connected to where you are.”
About his future career, Hunters says, “I didn’t really know what archeology was until my late teens, after I came out of school. I think that the appeal was that it was out of doors and it also had an intellectual component. I am not someone who would be happy being indoors reading history books. I love to read and being outside. The combination of the two came together naturally. That’s the attraction.”
With support from his parents, Hunter applied to the University of Birmingham to study geology and archeology. The first among his parents and siblings to go to college, Hunter says that Birmingham was one of the “red brick” universities, a name that distinguishes the more recent institutions from the more traditional Oxford or Cambridge. He selected the school because it had a good reputation for the disciplines that would get him outdoors.
After receiving a combined degree, Hunter moved to the University of Bradford to study archeological science. “It was a brand new program, and I was learning all sorts of exotic things,” he says. There he learned to use the new tools that are today’s archeology standards. That included Carbon- 14 testing (to determine age) and Neutron Activation Analysis (to determine chemical makeup).
“This was in the mid-’70s. It was a very enlightened program. It was set up for people without a science background and was very challenging. It was probably the hardest academic work that I have ever done. It has since become an established and recognized program,” says Hunter.
Upon concluding his work at Bradford, Hunter found the opportunity to employ his news skills as a working archeologist in Northampton, a city in central England. It is there that he unwittingly began prepare for the future.
“It was very much like Trenton,” he says. “It was an old industrial city, but it also had medieval and Roman settlements. It had a very large castle, and I spent two or three happy years digging sites there. I was employed by the agency that was developing the town. Very much a good background for what I am doing here,” in Trenton.
In 1977 there were changes in both the British economy and Hunter’s life. “There did not appear to be a future of archaeology for someone of my age in England. I was 27 years old, and I picked up and left. I think I had $300 in my pocket. I had very few belongings when I arrived in Princeton.” He picked the New Jersey location because he knew someone there.
His arrival to the states and central New Jersey stands out in his memory. “It was the summer that Elvis died. It was very hot. All the media focus was on Elvis. It was a culture shock, a very strange welcome. It took several months to adjust,” he said.
A search for employment led him to take what jobs he could find: a physics department technician at Princeton University, an encyclopedia editor for Arete Publishing on Route 1, and an adjunct faculty member in Rutgers University’s Department of Classics and Archeology, which, Hunter says, “got me back into the archeology world.”
But it was an advertisement in the Princeton newspaper Town Topics that started a career.
Hunter says that the owners of Glencairn, an early 18th-century building in Lawrence Township, had received a grant from the state to assist in restoration of the building on the Historic Registry. Since the grant required that recipients address regulated historic preservation practices, the owners — one being Princeton-based historian Clifford Zinc — needed to secure the services of a qualified archeologist. Hunter fit the need, got the job, and began working in conjunction with Rutgers on the project –– as well as starting a continued friendship with Zink.
“That’s what drew me into the consulting world,” Hunter said.
Balancing his part-time work at Rutgers, he said he that he become more involved with cultural resource management (CRM), or historic preservation consulting. Eventually he took a job with the North Jersey engineering firm Louis Berger and Company and assisted in setting up its CRM department. There the Trenton connection was made. “They were doing engineering and environment work for the Trenton complex interstate (at Routes 295/195). Because that’s in the Abbott Farm Landmark district there was a lot of archeology that needs to be done. I was involved with that between 1980 and 1983. It was a full-time job,” says Hunter.
After the state work was completed and exhausted by the now regular commutes to the company’s East Orange headquarters, Hunter, who during the years became the father of five and settled in Hopewell Township, again made a change. This time he joined the Princeton-area company Heritage Studies, overseen by respected historian and writer Constance Greiff.
“I worked with Heritage Studies until 1986. (Greiff’s) specialty was architectural history, and I brought archaeology. There was a good blend of disciplines. I learned a tremendous lot from Connie. She was very supportive and interested in archaeology. She was a big professional influence. She is a very extraordinary person, a woman in a very difficult field,” he says.
The difficulties for anyone working in historic conservation include maintaining a living in times of economic flux, being familiar with existing and changing government regulations, and having to understand the needs and perceptions of a wide variety of clients.
While fully acknowledging the above, the undaunted Hunter says, “In 1986 I took the plunge to set up on my own. I picked a good time in the middle of the Reagan years and set it up in Trenton.” Since he deals with state, county, and city agencies on a regular basis, the Trenton location made good business sense.
Originally founded as a sole proprietorship, Hunter was joined in 1988 by fellow Britain and University of Birmingham alumnus Ian Burrow, who became a partner and vice president four years later. Today Hunter Research employs approximately 20 full-time individuals who hold graduate degrees in history and archeology disciplines and can provide numerous cultural resource and historic preservation-related services.
While the award-winning company’s geographic range of service extends from New England to Washington, D.C., and includes such clients as Ellis Island, New York City’s Central Park, and Morven, Hunter is captivated by Trenton.
“Trenton is an extraordinary place. It’s hard to think of a city in this region that has as much history,” he says before listing some of the Trenton area’s already famous sites — the Old Barracks, New Jersey State House, Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark District, and more.
But then there are the lesser known –– for now –– projects and findings in which Hunter is actively engaged.
One is Petty’s Run, the remains of a steel mill located next to the New Jersey State House and fortuitously near the Hunter Research office on the same street. “It’s the only excavated, identified Colonial steel furnace in North America. It has an incredibly interesting history,” Hunter says. “They were making steel for the Continental Congress to use for supplies, guns, and armaments. Steel was a highly valued material during the colonial period.”
Since steel making was difficult and not fully understood in colonial America, in 1750 there were only five steel mills in North America. The State of New Jersey and Mercer County are working in partnership to support the excavation of this site.
Then there’s James Rhodes and his pottery, discovered when Hunter’s firm was providing conservation services during the excavation for the Route 29 tunnel. “He’s probably Trenton’s first full-time pottery. We don’t have evidence of any potters before 1774,” says Hunter, who co-curated the exhibition, along with Rebecca White, Trenton Museum Society member, and Nancy Hunter, his wife and former manager of Trenton’s Gallery 125.
“The importance of Rhodes is that he was a stoneware potter. There were very few stoneware potters in the colonies. You could count them on one hand. We have two kiln sites (in Trenton) that we know. Through the excavations we learned what he was making. And that is very rare,” he says.
Rhodes produced mugs, storage jugs, and other containers in the Rhineland stoneware tradition, an approach that began in Germany and gained popularity in England and the colonies. Hunter says that Rhodes’ pottery also has a “very distinctive type of decoration . . . floral motifs and cobalt blue. You can distinguish his work from others by the way he was decorating. “
Hunter’s work on the site has already gained notice in the archeological community. Richard Veit, an active New Jersey archeologist, Archeology Society of New Jersey board member, and professor of archeology at Monmouth University, calls Hunter’s work on Rhodes “one of the most interesting archeological studies in New Jersey in recent years. It is a model of detailed research and provides considerable new information about pottery production in colonial New Jersey.”
While the Rhodes pottery is important in itself, Hunter says that it has a broader archaeological relevance. “Pottery to archaeologist is like gold. Pottery is one of the main clues to recreating history.”
And Hunter is about recreating Trenton’s history as well as wanting to see its future.
“I’ve always maintained that part of the revival of the downtown has to be based on heritage tourism. History has to be part of the downtown revival. People looking in from the outside do not understand the place. Trenton has incredible potential. But it’s how to exploit and make it economically useful that is the challenge,” he says.
Musing over the 30 years in which he has been involved with numerous Trenton-area projects, Hunter says, “I am very English at heart and love to go back home and visit, but I feel that Trenton, central New Jersey, and Hopewell are my home.”
Richard Hunter’s lecture on James Rhodes, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Sunday, September 30, 2 p.m. Requested donation.
Trenton Makes Pottery: The Stoneware of James Rhodes, 1774-1784, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. On view through Friday, January 13, 2013. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. www.ellarslie.org or 609-989-3632