Unearthing roots of time before fans Stadium: A grove of bald cypress trees that may be up to 10 million years old was discovered while building the home of the Ravens.

March 25, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Excavations at the site of Baltimore's new NFL stadium have uncovered the still-woody remains of a grove of bald cypress trees that geologists say could be tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, of years old.

The site, which will soon hold football fans, was a swamp in a time before man, when large mammals dominated the land, scientists say.

The ancient logs, roots and a few huge stumps turned up in a deposit of black dirt and gray clay at least 50 yards long and 20 feet below street level. They will be buried again by the concrete foundation for stands in the northwest part of the stadium.

"Wow! This is neat," said Dr. James P. Reger, chief of environmental geology and mineral resources at the Maryland Geological Survey. He visited the site Friday with four state geologists and a botanist, and gathered samples of wood and clay for study.

"I'm always excited when something like this turns up, because it's not all that common," he said. To be preserved so well, the cypress wood must have been buried fairly quickly, perhaps in a river flood plain, and deprived of oxygen.

In that sort of environment, Reger said, "Organic material doesn't decay. It's not difficult at all to maintain that kind of chemical condition," even over great spans of time.

This is not the first time Baltimore stadium construction has turned up something interesting.

Excavations for Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1990 uncovered many relics, including the privy of a tavern and residence owned by Babe Ruth's father, and a flintlock pistol. The pistol may have been lost by a member of the French army, under the Comte de Rochambeau, which camped there en route to Yorktown in 1781.

Kenneth A. Schwarz, chief of the Geological Survey's Earth Science Information Center, called the site "very impressive." But "what really pleases me about it is the fact we were notified about it. So many finds, we never hear about."

Maryland Stadium Authority officials were not the ones who notified the Geological Survey of the deposit. The geologists were alerted Thursday by Sun artist Charles "Hap" Hazard, who spotted the formation while on the site preparing a drawing of stadium construction.

Reger's team was joined Friday by botanist Donnell E. Redman, president of the Natural History Society of Maryland. He identified the wood as bald cypress, and said it could be as old as 5 million to 10 million years.

"It was a swamp, almost like the present-day Pocomoke Swamp" on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Redman said.

The Pocomoke Swamp, together with Great Cypress Swamp in southern Delaware and Battle Creek Cypress Swamp in Calvert County, today are the northernmost bald cypress groves in the United States. The tree's range extends to the Gulf Coast and Florida, and up the Mississippi River as far as Illinois.

A tall, slender conifer that drops its needles in autumn, bald cypress can live 1,200 years. In wetlands, its roots may send tall, knobby "knees" above the water line, perhaps to take in air. Its wood is valued for its durability in wet conditions, and once was used for such things as fence posts and shingles.

In warmer eras, the tree grew much farther north. In his 1988 book, "The Great Cypress Swamps," Maryland writer and naturalist John V. Dennis noted that ancient cypress stumps have been found in Maine and New Hampshire. A cypress log found on Cape Cod, he said, was estimated to be 80,000 years old.

Ancient cypress wood has turned up in Maryland for many years. Dennis cited a 1905 report of a cypress stump dredged from beneath Baltimore Harbor. A paleobotanist estimated it to be 100,000 years old.

More cypress of a similar age was found in the excavation for the Mayflower Hotel in Washington in 1922. Other deposits have been found near Bodkin Point in Anne Arundel County, and at Horn Point on the Choptank River.

In 1986, gravel quarry workers in Brandywine, Prince George's County, discovered a rich deposit of cypress logs and many other unfossilized plant remains, even leaves and seed pods. Some species identified there are now extinct in North America. The deposit later was judged to be 4 million to 7 million years old.

Reger said he has "more questions than answers right now" about the stadium deposit. "We're anxious now to get some analysis done to pin down the age."

If the wood is less than 40,000 years old, radiocarbon dating techniques should be able to establish its age. If it's older than that, investigators must look for clues in the samples of dirt and clay they took from the deposit.

"What we're looking for is anything, but in particular pollen," Reger said. Pollen could reveal which other species grew in the area, and what the climate was like. "And the more you find, the more you narrow the range of ages" for the deposit.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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