Finding the treasure believed buried in some Annapolis woods near Mill Creek would be an archaeological coup.
Here, at the first European settlement in Anne Arundel County, Al Luckenbach and his team of archaeologists are digging their way through the domestic debris of Emanuel Drue, a 17th-century tobacco planter and pipe maker who lived on a piece of land called Swan Cove, in the village of Providence.
Beneath the pottery shards, brass buttons and oyster shells embedded in the soil, Luckenbach, who heads the county's archaeology department, is looking for the pipe kiln where Drue fired his crude clay pipes. If he's successful, it would be the first pipe kiln to be found in the New World.
The discovery of a kiln might help solve a long-standing puzzle about the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes that has been the subject of intense debate in archaeological circles for the past decade. Although clay pipes are common finds in nearly all 17th-century excavations, experts hold conflicting ideas about who produced them, and who used them. Luckenbach's work could disprove earlier theories that the pipes were made by slaves and Algonquin Indians.
The findings could also answer some questions about early industry in the Colonies, European trade and communication among different ethnic groups.
"This has been a hot potato in archaeology," said Julia King, director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard. "Who's making these pipes, how are they getting to the rest of the population, who's using them and what do they suggest about relationships?"
"Even though it may sound like such a small issue," King said, "it can give insights into how these people were socializing and keeping in contact with one another."
Drue's home site is one of eight homes that have been discovered at Providence, a hamlet settled in 1649 by about 300 Puritans invited to Maryland from Virginia. The village crumbled after 1695, when Maryland's capital moved from St. Mary's to Annapolis.
As part of Anne Arundel's Lost Towns Project, headed by Luckenbach, county archaeologists unearthed the remains of Providence 10 years ago.
An artifacts collector alerted them to the Swan Cove site in 1991, but as he searched the area, Luckenbach was puzzled by the shape of some of the artifacts that he discovered there.
"You could see the impression of a pipe stem, and we wondered whether it was something to do with making pipes," Luckenbach said. The researchers later concluded that the pieces were simply bits of mud that had been plastered around a fireplace.
It wasn't until a few years later, when Luckenbach and his staff got hold of a book on clay pipe production in England, that they were able to identify their findings at the Swan Cove site. They then determined that the items they had found were "muffles."
Muffles, also known as "kiln furniture," were protective vessels that held pipes as they were fired in the kiln. Although the items had puzzled the archaeologists, Drue's probate inventory at the time of his death in 1669 had held some clues. Among the items on the detailed list were "one payer of pype moulds brasse and materialls belonging to them."
"We finally saw the muffle fragments and said, `Yeah, that's what we were finding,'" Luckenbach said.
At that point, he knew that deeper excavation would likely lead to Drue's kiln.
The discovery at Providence would add a twist to an archaeological debate over the production of clay pipes in the Chesapeake region in the 17th century.
In the tobacco-driven economy, just about everybody - men and women, young and old - smoked a pipe. At a cemetery excavation in Calvert County, King said, archaeologists found skeletons whose mouths showed perfectly rounded holes in the teeth where pipes had once been clenched.
Pipes have been discovered in two varieties: imported pipes from England or Holland made from white kaolin clay, and locally made red-brown pipes. Research suggests that wealthy landowners used the imported white pipes, while indentured servants, slaves and Indians used the red ones.
According to Luckenbach and other archaeologists, his find would weaken a theory that the red clay pipes were mainly being produced in fireplaces on a small-scale basis by Native Americans and African-Americans.
"It appears that both at Swan Cove and Jamestown you have a white Anglo-Saxon male making these pipes using top-of-the-line manufacturing technology you would have found in England," Luckenbach said. "There's a question about how much cross-cultural contact was going on here, and who's teaching who how to make pipes."
Decorations on some red pipes found in the Chesapeake region clearly indicate they were made by Native Americans, but Luckenbach's discovery could give support to other theories about the distribution of pipes in the region.