“It’s not unusual for young kids to be interested in dinosaurs and Indians. I just never outgrew it. When I was in seventh grade, my father started taking me out into the fields to look for arrowheads. I remember thinking it was so cool to be looking for things the Native Americans had dropped hundreds of years ago. Later on, we joined the Maryland Archaeological Society, and I went on my first dig when I was 15. From there, it was a pretty straight shot. I went to UVA and got my B.A. and then the University of Kentucky and got my M.A. and Ph.D. I’ve been the Anne Arundel County archaeologist for 24 years now.
Part of my job is to protect archaeology sites that are endangered when development occurs. Over the years, the job has developed into a larger thing. We began salvage excavations on archaeological sites that were going to be destroyed.
We first began discovering house sites that belonged to a settlement called Providence, a town founded in 1649 on the Severn River. This population was the first group of Europeans to settle in Anne Arundel County.
The second town we explored was London Town, and once we had two “lost” towns, we became the Lost Towns Project. We had mainly focused on 17th-century archaeology sites, but during the last three years we’ve veered into prehistoric archaeology with a new site called Pig Point, an Algonquin Indian camp on the Patuxent River and the most important prehistoric site in the county. Up until then, we had mainly focused on Colonial towns, but I always told people that if we found an interesting prehistoric site, we would put our attention there.
We’ve been really lucky and have found a number of things where we get to use superlatives. At Providence, we found the earliest Colonial pipe-making operation. Who made the pipes—colonists or Native Americans—was a big point of debate, so the discovery was important. We’ve found a great number of artifacts here at London Town, especially in the cellar of Rumney’s Tavern.
London Town, on the South River in current-day Edgewater, was a popular stopover for people traveling on the waterways. There were a lot of taverns in town, and, at first, we thought we were looking at a place where sailors met, but the stuff we found there showed us it was a high-end tavern, probably where plantation owners and ship captains met to do business. The coffee pots and teacups we found offered an important glimpse of what tavern life looked like in the early 18th century.
Another great discovery we made was the Samuel Chew house. We found the foundation of the home beneath an overgrown farm. The home was built around 1695, was three stories high, and had a full basement. When we set off looking for a wealthy man’s home, we had no idea we’d find the grandest home of the time.
On a typical day in the field, we dig up soils, and we spend time screening them. We put artifacts in bags, but the most important thing is taking notes and keeping track of the pieces. We have to take a lot of pictures as we go along and keep careful records. Digging an archaeological site is like ripping the pages out of a history book, but there is only one copy of the book.
There was one time we found an iron pot in a cellar dating from 1650. It was amazing because it was all in one piece, but it was so rusty that there was no actual metal left to it. We spent a couple of hours just getting ready to lift it out, and when we finally did, we only had it for about 10 seconds before it went ‘poof,’ and dissolved completely. We could really work at any of these sites for a lifetime. So, as funding allows, we go and spend as much time as we can. It’s never that we couldn’t dig more, but that the time to dig has run out—whether that’s because of development, lack of funding, or erosion. These are big concerns. The sites are very threatened. Even if development slows down, we’ve got a lot of sea-level rise, and sites keep falling into the bay, as they have been for thousands of years now. It’s a big problem.
I know a lot of people describe digging as a form of time travel, this process of learning what life was like a long time ago, seeing things that people threw away hundreds or thousands of years ago, and filling in the pieces of the puzzle of our past. A lot of people think that you have to go to the Southwest or Egypt to dig and find really interesting things, but what people don’t realize is that archaeology is all around us. You don’t have to go to the Yucatán to find lost towns—we have about half a dozen right here.”