Local treasure unearthed

History: A Tilghman Island native returns as a graduate student to uncover relics buried 13,000 years ago.

March 10, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Archaeologist Darrin Lowery, the son of a waterman, remembers scanning sandy beaches, shoals and the marshy shoreline of the bay for hours on end, slowly trolling with his father in an old Chincoteague scow named the Onepapa.

Their catch was not crabs or fish or oysters, but something more intriguing -- spear points and other artifacts, the ancient debris of people who lived and hunted here for thousands of years. It was a childhood quest that turned into a career.

Lowery is 32, but his work first won the attention of archaeologists before he finished at St. Michaels High School. Twenty-five years and hundreds of artifacts later, he figures he's barely scratched the surface -- no pun intended -- in telling the story of the Eastern Shore's first inhabitants.

"I was about 7 years old and my dad -- he was a carpenter, a boat-builder, a waterman -- got me interested in archaeology," Lowery says. "When I was little, we'd go look at sites that were eroding into the bay and pick up whatever was there. I didn't know whether it was 200 years old or 2 million years old."

Now, after completing a survey of sites in the 20-by-60-mile Choptank River watershed, Lowery has come full circle for a more intensive look at traces of humankind left 13,000 years ago in his hometown.

It was a time and place that would be unrecognizable for a Tilghman islander, where generations have worked on the water.

"First off, there was no Chesapeake Bay; the ancient Susquehanna River was right out there," Lowery says with a wave toward the west. "Sea level was 300 or 400 feet lower than it is today."

Without the bay, the landscape was marked more by a rocky riverbed and little vegetation, Lowery says. And the animals encountered by these people were just as exotic -- saber-toothed tigers, mastodons, maybe the occasional mammoth or even some beasts that looked like camels.

Scrunching down in a square 3-foot hole meticulously excavated in the dense clay typical of the Mid-Shore region, Lowery carefully brushes mud from a 3-inch projectile point (he corrects laymen who tend to call them arrowheads) he's found there.

"Everybody thinks you have to go to Egypt to find cool stuff," says Lowery. "People would be surprised This point might very well have been stuck into the side of a mastodon [or] it was dropped right here by some guy 13,000 years ago, and here we find it. When you add the flavor, the context, it gets a whole lot more interesting."

Flavor and context are exactly what Lowery has been seeking all over the Delmarva Peninsula, a professional territory where he has few peers and probably no equal, according to Richard Hughes, archaeology director for the Maryland Historic Trust.

"He's identified many, many sites over there, greatly increasing our base of knowledge," Hughes says. "I first met him when he was a kid. There's a single-mindedness about Darrin and his devotion to the Eastern Shore.

"He's individualistic, independent, but I guess that's his roots."

His sister, Colleen Sadler, also a Tilghman native and resident, still helps him sift though dirt, searching for the artifacts they easily found above ground or in shallow water when they were children. Her brother, she says, has some kind of sixth sense about where to dig.

Lowery shrugs that off, saying he studies the contours of land to determine where streams might have been. He also uses satellite images. If you find the source of water, usually you'll find where people lived and worked, he says.

Lowery and Andrew Wyatt, a fellow graduate student at Temple, say finding a complete spear point 3 feet in the ground -- rather than scattered among other artifacts by a farmer's plow or the waves of the Chesapeake -- makes it all the more valuable, because they can then study the soil around it for other clues to life long ago.

Soil tests should provide clues about the climate and vegetation of the ancient world. With luck, blood samples might be extracted from the stone point, telling researchers what kinds of animals were hunted so long ago.

"There's so little known about this period and here we have something undisturbed for so long," Wyatt says.

Adding to the mystery, Lowery says, is many of the stone points he's found on the Eastern Shore are identical to others of the same period found in New Mexico, Washington state and other places.

Was there trade among ancient men of the Paleo-Indian period, shared technology, or did the skills develop independently about the same time? People all over the continent had the same tool-making skill for 1,000 years or so, then lost it, he says. No one knows why.

"What's really cool is you can go to Florida, Maine, Oregon or California, and they were all making the same things the same way," Lowery says. "It's 13,000 years ago and it's like everybody was sharing the same spaghetti sauce recipe."

Sometime next year, the 20-acre Tilghman property, which includes almost a mile of waterfront, will be placed in a permanent archaeological easement under the protection of the Archaeological Conservancy, which has preserved 200 significant sites around the country.

And over the next 18 months, Lowery will move on to the second phase of this project, using a $40,000 grant from Temple University, where is he studying for his doctorate, and the Maryland Historical Trust for a closer look at two Dorchester County sites -- one 8,500 years old and another dating back 3,200 years.

The research possibilities "are really pretty much endless, we know so little," says Lowery. "I figure I've been at this for 32 years. Given a normal life span, I've got another 30-plus years. I'm not going anywhere. I'll be right here."

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