Maryland's first Baltimore Excavation: Archaeologists digging at Aberdeen Proving Ground unearth artifacts from a tiny tobacco port that vanished around the end of the 17th century.

December 22, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

ABERDEEN -- In the 1680s, the frontiersman and tobacco merchants of the northern Chesapeake Bay gathered to trade and socialize at a tiny tobacco port on the Bush River. They called it Baltimore Town, the 17th-century seat of Baltimore County's court.

Archaeologists digging gingerly amid unexploded munitions at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground say they have found traces of that first Baltimore, a town that vanished decades before the 1729 founding of a new Baltimore, 20 miles to the south on the Patapsco River.

To the archaeologists' surprise, the site has yielded a trove of well-preserved artifacts. They tell of people settled at the edge of the wilderness, but comforted by fine possessions from Europe.

Along with the remains of bear, wolf and Indian trade goods, the dig has turned up the hinge of a book clasp, a fine Delft salt cellar and hints of a private stock of wine -- all dated to the late 1600s.

"These things shouldn't be here at the edge of the frontier," said archaeologist Christopher R. Polglase of R. Christopher Goodwin & Assoc. in Frederick. "The material culture at that period in this area was not that rich. People don't have access to those types of objects."

Yet someone on the Bush River in the 1680s clearly did. Their unexpected survival promises to fatten a slim chapter in Maryland history.

"We have very few windows on the 17th century in this end of the Chesapeake," Polglase said, and "few opportunities to look at sites of this character and quality."

He likened the site's importance to that of London Town, a 17th- and 18th-century site in Anne Arundel County, and to "the best parts of Annapolis or St. Mary's City. It's not as old as some, but in terms of preservation and the information we're going to obtain, it is on that level."

Ed Chaney, archaeologist for Southern Maryland at the Jefferson Patterson Historical Park and Museum in Calvert County, said: "Our picture of 17th-century Maryland is pretty much based on what's found in Southern Maryland. [Old Baltimore] will really extend our understanding of the other 17th-century Maryland."

David Blick, cultural resource manager for Aberdeen Proving Ground, initiated the $60,000 dig.

"Local folks had known about the Old Baltimore site for decades, but the exact location was not certain," he said. There had never been a professional dig, so "I thought it would be worth a full-faith effort."

Archaeologists knew roughly where to look. "The question was, was there anything left?" said Tom Davis, another Goodwin archaeologist.

Settlers had little in the 17th century, and threw little away. Their wooden houses fell quickly to termites. Old Baltimore stood for barely 40 years, disappearing after the county seat was moved south in the 1690s, or soon after.

By 1712, the court sat at Joppa, on the Gunpowder River. It moved to the "new" Baltimore in 1768, and to Towson in 1851. Old Baltimore vanished beneath the plow. It became part of Harford County when Harford and Cecil counties were formed in Baltimore Town was the earliest town on the upper Chesapeake. It was a ferry landing, and its tobacco port served the best tobacco-growing land in the upper bay. It was also a gateway to the wilderness to the north and west. In 1674, authorities ordered a courthouse built there.

"We think we know where the courthouse may be," Polglase said. "But to test there would require an intensive sweep and clearance of ordnance."

Instead, the archaeologists focused on woods near Chilbury Point. After the Army cleared a hand grenade and a 750-pound aerial bomb, the archaeologists dug a series of test pits. One of them came down on brick. Brick houses were a rarity in the 1600s. This proved to be the 20-foot end wall of an otherwise wood-frame house. Evidence of an earlier structure suggested that the town had been settled by the 1660s.

From barely 40 square yards of excavations over 13 months came a gusher of artifacts.

"Every time we put a hole in the ground, we came up with something. After a while, this became like a kid in a candy box situation," Polglase said.

The site is thought to have belonged to James Philips. He arrived in the 1650s and began buying land. In 1678, he married a cooper's widow and acquired her Baltimore Town property.

In 1683, Philips was authorized to establish an "ordinary," or tavern, at his house in town -- by then the center of politics and commerce in the upper bay.

Davis imagines a wharf, warehouse, jail, streets and houses "spread out along the riverbank for a quarter-mile." People arrived by ferry, on foot or horseback. They lingered at Philips' tavern to discuss the news. And they smoked. Some 2,000 clay pipe fragments were found, also a farthing coin dating to the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), horse tack, farm tools, knee buckles and English gun flints.

The river was probably busy with fishing boats. The dig turned up the remains of meals of oysters, rockfish, sturgeon and turtles.

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