Digging up room to work

Archaeology: The cramped Anne Arundel County lab prepares to break ground on a $5.1 million, 12,000-square-foot complex.

October 05, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

They're packed elbow-to-elbow around tables pushed together in a way reminiscent of a nursery school, surrounded by stuffed cubbyholes, pots of glue, paintbrushes and other paraphernalia.

But these are not toddlers working on an art project. They are adults working in the Anne Arundel County archaeology lab, a cramped operation on the first floor of an Annapolis-area office building and destination for a wealth of artifacts from a heritage-rich county.

The professionals, student interns and volunteers process artifacts from some of the earliest European settlements in North America - and barely have room to turn around in their claustrophobic space.

They jostle around tables covered with parts of ceramic plates, glass flasks, and whatever other bits of Colonial-era artifacts that have been unearthed.

"It's pretty crowded in there," said Al Luckenbach, the county's chief archaeologist. But relief is on the way.

The county is preparing to break ground on a $5.1 million, 12,000-square-foot complex, which is scheduled to open in 2004, to house the archaeology lab, a classroom and exhibit space. It will also include a visitors center at Historic London Town and Gardens, the faded Colonial seaport south of Annapolis that is now a historical site yielding details about life in the 1600s and 1700s.

Construction is scheduled to start in March on the two-building complex, which has won two design awards. The complex will have nearly 1,000 square feet of conservation and lab space above ground, said project architect Brian Oster, of Cho Benn Holback & Associates in Baltimore.

Visitors will also be able to watch the archaeologists at work. Adding the lab a few hundred feet from the active dig site will help complete the picture for 26,000 visitors and the 4,000 students who attend programs there each year and is part of a larger effort to raise the public profile of the London Town site.

"We will have not only nearly twice as much space, but a lot of our digging is done at London Town. It is very convenient," Luckenbach said.

Anne Arundel County is rich in Colonial-era finds because it has more than 400 miles of waterfront, and early settlers did not venture far inland, he said.

To help process the wealth of archaeological material, Luckenbach relies on 30 regulars and another 400 part-time helpers who make his operation one of the state's biggest volunteer archaeology efforts. Without them, Luckenbach says, the 10-member paid staff could not unearth and make sense of the area's past.

Recently, a volunteer artifact labeler worked next to an iron expert who slathered an acidic substance on a centuries-old lock. Nearby, an archaeologist sorted pinhead-sized seeds from chips of old brick and bone.

Two interns and a volunteer scrubbed "broken antiques" from a dig site near rural Galesville. Cabinets behind them were packed with artifacts and buckets of historic bricks.

The room looks spacious next to the adjoining closet-like rooms - one is a little bigger than a sink. The second is a maze of 350 cartons of cataloged artifacts with a cubby holding an air-abrasion chamber for cleaning iron pieces.

In the lab office, coded one-gallon plastic bags jam ceiling-high shelves, filled with dirty treasures waiting to be washed, sorted, dried, labeled, stored, cataloged and computerized and mapped. Desktops hold books, computers and microscopes as well as a 300-year-old tangle of iron.

The regulars who share this tiny space say that they get along, speak softly and agree on a backdrop of low-key classical music.

Alex Aston, an intern who is a student at Harford Community College, commutes from his home near Jarrettsville two days a week to scrub artifacts.

"It's worth the journey," said Aston, 19. "It gives me a little of that Indiana Jones feeling coming down."

Caroline Wogofski, 62, of Annapolis got her start in washing Colonial artifacts at the William Paca House and Garden in Annapolis, but that program ended a few years ago. She's been scrubbing at the lab for a year now.

"They've got better artifacts over here," she said, pointing to fragments of bone, clay pipe, charcoal and metal that she placed in a screen-bottom tray. After a few hours, her fingertips look like pink raisins against her low-tech tool, a red toothbrush used to scrub dirt off artifacts.

Shawn Sharpe, a full-time staffer, painted tannic acid on what's left of an iron lock from the 1600s to protect its pebbly finish from more corrosion. His green coffee mug stood perilously close to the acid.

"Sometimes I get confused. I dip the brush in my coffee," he said.

Workers will have more room to spread out when the new lab opens. It will have sinks of running water - replacing the current dishpans and colanders - a labeling area and computer center.

A separate conservation room will provide space for glass preservation work now done in Crownsville, as well as for iron restoration.

The second building will house the London Town visitors center above ground. It will house a gift shop, information center and a classroom-size hall for a move about London Town.

The two structures' shared cellar has its own history. It was an underground sewage treatment plant from 1969 to 1985. The concrete chasm will hold a classroom, a few hundred square feet of storage space for archaeologists and a museum space showing the history of London Town as a travel and trade hub from the 1680s to mid-1700s.

The tobacco port was the landing point for ships that brought slaves from Africa and ceramics from Italy.

"What we are about here is interpreting the history of this area through history and archaeology," said Gregory A. Stiverson, executive director of the 23-acre historic site.

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