Maryland dedicates archaeological lab called world's best for underwater finds

May 09, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

ST. LEONARD -- Dug from the soil or lifted from a mucky river bottom, archaeological artifacts begin to lose their voice.

Rot and corrosion race through wood and metal exposed to air. And relics stuffed into boxes can tell their story only as long as labels, paper records and the artifacts themselves remain intact and accessible.

Yesterday, Maryland dedicated a $9.1 million Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard, designed to save the state's neglected archaeological treasures so that all Marylanders can hear their stories.

"It's the culmination of a dream, and to have it come out better than we expected, that's the part that blows me away," said J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, a part of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The laboratory's conservation staff -- long relegated to the fumes of cramped basements -- said the facility is unmatched by any state's.

"Our opinion right now is that for submerged archaeology, this is the best facility in the world," Little said. "It's an extreme statement, but I believe it's true."

Marley Brown, director of archaeological research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia, agreed that "Maryland is way ahead now."

"It is a very intelligently designed facility, and we'd like to have one like that in Colonial Williamsburg," he said. "It ensures the future of archaeology in Maryland."

The 38,000-square-foot lab, designed by Ayers/Faint/Gross Architects of Baltimore, is disguised as a cluster of white clapboard farm buildings at the state's Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, overlooking the Patuxent River in Calvert County.

It was built to safely handle and preserve everything from the waterlogged timbers of sunken ships to pollen grains that hold clues to what grew in Maryland's earliest forests and gardens.

The lab was conceived 20 years ago when Little found that despite the estimated 6,000 shipwrecks in Chesapeake Bay, the state had no place to conserve sunken artifacts.

In 1981, when a search for ships sunk at St. Leonard Creek during the War of 1812 struck wood, the fragile timbers had to be returned to the relative safety of the mud.

Planning for the lab began in earnest in 1987, with the support of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a supporter of archaeology and of its potential to spur tourism and development.

In the laboratory's receiving room this week, staffers uncrated the bronze and iron remains of the nation's rarest and oldest marine steam engine. Built in Baltimore in 1828, it sank in the bay in 1850 with the steamer Columbus. It was recovered in 1993 by the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Port Administration.

Michael A. Smolek, director of Jefferson Patterson Park, said one brittle iron piece shattered during shipment from a conservator in Louisiana.

"That was unfortunate," he said. "It's a very important piece, and it needs to be on exhibit somewhere. A lot of work has to be put into this."

The heavy lifting was aided by a 5-ton crane. Below, a catchment system of gutters, valves and holding tanks assures safe handling of any spilled chemicals.

The lab offers thin-sectioning equipment and a photospectrometer to reveal the composition of artifacts. An X-ray machine can show outlines of artifacts obscured by corrosion. And a large freeze-drier can remove water from wooden objects without destroying the wood's fragile structure.

Researchers will find offices, computers, maps and a public library with thousands of books and reports on Maryland history and archaeology -- many of them available nowhere else.

This week, archaeologists Curt Breckenridge and Paula Mask worked in a spacious, well-lighted room painting tiny catalog numbers on fragments of glass, ceramics, iron and bone.

The relics were dug up in 1985 during restoration of the Log Quarters, a building at Towson's Hampton Mansion that might have housed slaves.

The lab plans open houses and hourly tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, and May 16. For reservations, call 410 586-8550.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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