Archaeologists in Anne Arundel County are racing to excavate the remains of a remarkable 8,000- to 10,000-year-old Indian camp before looters destroy the site.
The ancient tool-making camp, located in a northern section of the county, already has been badly damaged by an unidentified looter, who dug up huge mounds of dirt over several weeks this fall.
Archaeologists called the damage the worst they've ever encountered.
"This man [the looter] was on his way to killing the last of an extinct species, the equivalent of shooting the last bull elephant, or the last bald eagle," said R. Christopher Goodwin, a Frederick archaeologist hired to salvage what artifacts and information remain buried at the camp.
"The odds are that he's destroyed dozens of features, hearth features in particular," said Goodwin.
The camp is in a pocket of woods surrounded by development but Goodwin and another archaeologist asked that the precise location not be revealed, to protect it from further looting.
Walking across mounds of red earth that apparently were dug up and sifted by the relic hunter, Goodwin pointed out scores of fire-cracked rocks that once lined Indian fires, now discarded and strewn about the site.
In the woods nearby, however, trained archaeologists digging carefully and methodically into the undisturbed red soil have unearthed numerous intact hearths.
They also have found four buff-colored stone projectile points. Identified by their shape as "Kirk" points, they date the site to the Early Archaic period, 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.
Even with all the looting, Goodwin said, "this is the most intact Early Archaic site yet found in the region. I don't know of any other site in this area that has produced so many hearth features."
Goodwin's project manager, Christopher Polglase, calls it the most intact Early Archaic site yet found "in the whole mid-Atlantic region."
Maryland at that time was emerging from the last Ice Age. The climate was much cooler than today, a place of spruce and birch trees like those found today in Canada, Polglase said.
Sea levels were rising as the glaciers melted, but were still 250 to 300 feet lower than today. This Indian camp -- now barely 50 feet above sea level -- was an upland retreat high above more substantial camps that were probably located along the ancient Susquehanna River, now submerged beneath Chesapeake Bay.
There are hopes the site may yield still older materials, like the fluted Clovis projectile points characteristic of "Paleo-Indians" -- North America's first human residents. Only one other Paleo-Indian site is known in Maryland, also in northern Arundel.
But what has excited the scientists most so far are features that hint at the lifestyles and behaviors of these Early Archaic Indians.
One such feature, at first thought to be a hearth, turned out to contain stone cobbles that were not fire-cracked, and large stone flakes.
"It looks like an episode of someone sitting and breaking large stones and taking away what he needed" to make stone blades, said Polglase.
Elsewhere, they found a quartzite "quarry blank" -- a melon-sized stone from which chunks for making knife blades and projectile points were chipped. Nearby was a pile of as many as 1,500 stone flakes discarded during tool-making.
It all adds up to evidence that the site was used repeatedly by the Indians as a tool-making camp.
And there's more. A few feet away from one of the tool-making areas, the digging revealed a line of stones.
"We think they may be hide tent weights" -- stones used by the Indians to hold down the edges of hide tents, Goodwin said. It's a simple technology preferred by sub-arctic nomadic bands that must travel light.
"So we're talking about fairly early people with a nomadic life pattern, right on the border of the Paleo and Early Archaic," he said.
"Simply being able to prove they were using hide tents is a big deal when we know so little about how they lived in that period," Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel County archaeolgist.
While the looter got only a collection of artifacts, Goodwin said, trained archaeologists are able to uncover and document relationships between artifacts that can be dated, and features like the tent weights and hearths that reveal human behaviors during that period.
"It gives us a 10,000-year window on the past," he said.
About seven acres in size, the wooded site is criss-crossed by paths and strewn with trash. It has been on state archaeological records for more than 12 years, Luckenbach said. There is also evidence that relic hunters have periodically searched the area for artifacts.
"But this is the most energetic I've ever seen anyone attack an Indian site with a shovel," he said. "Usually arrowhead collectors are satisfied to walk a plowed field, where they do less harm."
Luckenbach said the looter may have learned that the site has been targeted for development, and made a "major effort" to dig up salable items before the woods are replaced by houses.