University of Maryland busy with 750,000 artifacts to study

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Cold winds may be blowing and the ground is definitely frozen, but the weather isn't slowing archaeologists in their decades-long effort to document Annapolis' past.

The scientists have merely moved indoors to their lab at the University of Maryland, where they continue to make sense of the pieces of bone, shards of china, bits of spice bottles and slivers of metal that have been unearthed in Annapolis.

Right now, the scholars in the Anthropology Department are looking at artifacts found on Cornhill and Fleet streets downtown. With few exceptions, working-class whites lived on Cornhill Street 100 years ago, while African Americans lived on adjoining Fleet Street.

One member of the Archaeology in Annapolis program, doctoral student Jocelyn Knauf, pointed to a little bottle that spoke volumes about life in a bygone era. The bottle, excavated in June 2008 at 40 Fleet St., was for Prof. Low's Worm Syrup, a concoction used to rid the intestines of parasites.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, Southerners, both whites and blacks, were so anemic because of hookworms, Northerners called the parasite "the germ of laziness."

Knauf said the commonplace items the archaeological team found in an old privy are proving to be priceless.

"It tells what a typical African-American family that was living at 40 Fleet St. was eating and using," Knauf said of the findings.

Among the items she was working with this week were a J.B. Coolahan mineral water bottle and a jar that once contained Chesebrough Vaseline. There also was an intact McCormick bottle that likely held vanilla extract or some other flavoring, and fragments of canning jars.

One small, square bottle that remains a mystery dates to the early 1900s, and contained some kind of highly aromatic turpentine extract. The corked brown bottle, found with the liquid still in it, emits a strong odor, but whatever label the bottle ever bore disappeared long ago.

The Annapolis artifacts in these particular trays go back to the early 1800s, and sometimes the tiniest little item can tell a big story.

In June, for example, students uncovered a lot of bone fragments at 30 Cornhill St., a collection that told of the foods working-class white people were eating from about 1820 onward.

"The thing that shows up suddenly is lots of types of birds," said doctoral student Amanda Tang, whose speciality is using bones to document history.

It turns out, Tang said, that John Brady, a baker, moved into 30 Cornhill St. in 1850, and local residents appear to have taken fowl to him to be baked or roasted, a service for which they paid some small fee.

In the early and mid-1800s, the whites at 30 Cornhill St. ate beef, mutton, venison and "lots of seafood," Tang said, but by the late 1800s they were eating more pork and rabbit, and deer was disappearing from their diet.

Eastport history

Anthropologist Matthew Palus, a Columbia University doctoral candidate who works with Archaeology in Annapolis, did his dissertation on Eastport. More specifically, Palus studied the installation of sewer lines.

Decades before Eastport became part of Annapolis in 1951, Annapolis was running sewer lines into the blue-collar neighborhood where whites and African Americans lived side by side.

"A lot of people talk about sewers as public health, but what I wanted to see was the growth of government," Palus said.

"I started looking at how the infrastructure of the city started (growing) after the Civil War," Palus said. "The vehicle for government (growth) was these utilities."

As his investigation continued, Palus found that African Americans in Eastport were not hooking up to sewers as quickly as whites were. He said he doesn't know if the difference was a matter of household finances, or whether it was because of discrimination against African Americans, or if African Americans might have had "a different set of priorities."

Regardless of the reason, Palus said, the African-American community appears to have been less attached to the city's government and its utilities than whites were, and an independent African-American subculture appears to have developed.


The Archaeology in Annapolis program has made some startling discoveries in recent years, even though it would seem that anything of value would have been unearthed long ago.

In 2008, the project uncovered near Fleet Street what is believed to be the oldest African artifact ever found in the United States. It is a religious bundle about the size of a football, and contains lead shot, nails and pins, and a stone ax that points skyward from the top of the bundle.

That same year, the team unearthed a log road near the convergence of Cornhill and Fleet streets. The road dates back to the 1680s, before there was a formal city, and historians say it shows that a group of residents, or possibly the Colonial government, was willing to invest in infrastructure.

Archaeology in Annapolis started in 1981, when Historic Annapolis Foundation founder St. Claire Wright brought in University of Maryland anthropology professor Mark Leone to do some excavations around the circa 1715 Shiplap House on Pinkney Street.

Leone's students have been busy finding and studying artifacts ever since.

The archaeologists typically are invited to conduct digs in people's yards, or are brought in by the city to excavate when a major demolition or construction project is under way. They typically have some hint of a site's historic nature by checking property records and other documents.

"St. Claire Wright and I decided to focus (on) Annapolis," Leone said. "She wanted the city saved, and I wanted (to start) an archaeological project that was always opened to the public and that was (the basis for) scholarly work."

Today, the program attracts top students and scholars from as far away as Europe, and Leone said this week that it has trained about 50 graduate students, 17 of them at the Ph.D. level.

"We now have about 750,000 artifacts from our work," Leone said.

Uncertain future

Leone said the archaeology program is not weakening in any way, and he is excited about this year's excavation. The dig will be at 99 East St., a piece of property that belonged to free African Americans before emancipation and remains in the family's hands.

The city's mayors have supported the program over the years, and property owners have invited the scholars to dig in their yards. The house at 30 Cornhill St., for example, belongs to Karen Engelke, who was an assistant to former mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

Leone said the program costs about $150,000 a year to operate, nearly all of which comes from various grants. The city puts up a relatively small amount, about $25,000 a year.

Phill McGowan, a spokesman for Mayor Josh Cohen, said funding may be difficult to find this year.

"It is an outstanding program; Mark Leone and his team have done some outstanding work," he said. "But it is going to be a challenge to maintain grant spending at the same level - it is not just this particular grant, it is all grants."

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