Program lets youths dig into city's past Archaeology: A group of young men, some in the custody of Juvenile Justice, spent two weeks at the future site of a new detention center.

August 31, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Demolition, archaeology, and the business of inspiring young minds all converged recently on two blocks of East Baltimore in a bid to extract hope from rubble.

Sixteen young men, including 12 in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice, spent two weeks helping archaeologists explore the future site of a new Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street.

As demolition equipment growled nearby, and trucks from the city's busiest fire station wailed past on Hillen Street, the youngsters helped sift layers of dirt and 150-year-old trash in search of their community's history.

"We mostly found ancient artifacts from the people who lived and worked at the site," said Richard Crowe-Cheppell, 15, of East Baltimore.

A 10th-grader at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, he wants to be an electrical engineer. He participated as part of the Summer Initiative program at Fair Chance Center, along with Emmanuel Adetunji, 14, a ninth-grader from Northeast Baltimore, and two other boys. Fair Chance, on North Gay Street, provides educational and community services under a grant from Juvenile Justice.

"I found a bone-handled knife and partial animal teeth," Crowe-Cheppell said. "I'd like to do it again. It was a lot of fun to do."

The Department of Juvenile Justice has worked with Fair Chance and East Baltimore's community leaders to develop the $53 million detention facility in a way that provides opportunities for city youngsters, not just jail cells.

The kids joined the archaeological field work during its final two weeks.

"I have to tell you I was apprehensive about how I was going to interact with them," said Martha Williams, a former high school teacher, now an archaeologist with R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, of Frederick, which conducted the $200,000 dig. Archaeological studies are required prior to any state-funded construction.

Williams said the kids -- especially those from Juvenile Justice -- turned out to be bright and motivated. They learned quickly and asked good questions. "It reminded me of what I used to love to do. I got maybe more out of it than the students."

The dig produced thousands of artifacts dating to the mid-1700s. Some may date from the late 1600s. If so, they would be among the oldest artifacts ever found in Baltimore.

"We managed to open up a window on one of the oldest sections of Baltimore -- Jonestown or Old Town," Williams said. Situated on what was once the east bank of the Jones Falls, just north of the Inner Harbor, Jonestown was one of Baltimore's first town centers.

Old privies yielded heaps of broken glassware, ceramics, utensils, food bones and shells -- household trash rich with information about daily life.

"We found one object that looked like a candle holder, but it was a spittoon," said Martes B., 16, one of the boys from Juvenile Justice (who all spoke on condition that their full names not be used).

"It's kind of amazing how people walked around with spittoons and spit tobacco into them. It's kind of disgusting," he said.

The archaeologists found the stone foundation of a wooden detached kitchen from the 18th century. There were brick hearths, a cobbled patio and trash-filled privies.

Traces of early houses, 19th-century rowhouses and 20th-century garages turned up in a crazy-quilt of interlocking and overlapping patterns the archaeologists have not yet fully sorted out.

Removal of the concrete pad for a 1950s parking garage on Front Street, for example, exposed the foundation of the old Bulls Head Tavern, which fed and watered Baltimoreans and their horses for nearly the entire 19th century.

Another portion of the site, at Hillen and Exeter streets, revealed a well filled with hundreds of broken cone-shaped containers, about 18 inches long. "They looked like ceramic torpedo shells, and we didn't know what they were," Williams said.

Further research identified them as sugar molds -- traces of a sugar refinery operated at the site from 1804 to 1829 by Augustus Shutt.

The dig is finished, and what remains in the ground will be destroyed during construction.

Many questions await Goodwin's archaeologists as they clean, catalog and analyze their discoveries, Williams said. For example, archaeologists have long debated whether the ethnicity of a site's former occupants could be determined from the kinds of artifacts found there.

City records show that portions of the Juvenile Justice Center site were home to African-Americans, Jewish, Italian and German immigrants.

Fortunately, all of them threw their trash into their privies, and eight were excavated. "We now have the data to begin to address the issue," Williams said.

DJJ officials and East Baltimore community leaders, meanwhile, believe they have just begun to tap the center's potential for teaching city children, and opening their eyes to possibilities beyond the street corner.

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