Ground holds secrets to Colonial life

Balto. County's first seat proves fertile for artifacts

October 12, 2003|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A sandy riverbank stretches into acres of deserted farmland, where it appears that only a trace of civilization remains - as a plot of graves and a marker. But on that very site in 1998, excavation crews uncovered significant archaeological remnants of Colonial life in Old Baltimore, the first permanent seat of government in Baltimore County. What they discovered continues to teach scholars, historians and others about the way people lived in Maryland during the turn of the 17th century.

Mark Gallihue, cultural resource manager for Aberdeen Proving Ground, recently presented photos of the findings as part of a historical lecture series sponsored by the Aberdeen Heritage Trust.

The quest for Old Baltimore began in the fall of 1997, Gallihue said, when the Aberdeen Proving Ground Cultural Resource Management Program enlisted the support of Frederick-based cultural resource specialty firm R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates Inc.

Old Baltimore was a small yet thriving community during the late 17th century until the court moved to Joppa in 1712, to present-day Baltimore in 1768 and to Towson in 1851. As the center of commerce moved, Old Baltimore disappeared, becoming an abandoned and nearly forgotten section of Harford County.

Harford County residents say they had long heard stories of Old Baltimore but until the excavation could not pinpoint its location.

So Goodwin's crew set out to find it.

Original land patents identified the primary landholders as James Phillips, a prominent resident, and William Osbourne, a Bush River ferry operator.

Eighteenth-century court documents detailed the tracts of land on and around the site, pointing the way for the Goodwin crew.

Not quite large enough to serve as full-sized port, the boat landing along the northern edge of the Chesapeake Bay welcomed frontiersmen and tobacco merchants in the 1680s.

During the 13-month-long excavations, the story unfolded. Well-preserved artifacts revealed information about the settlers and their lifestyle.

A tavern in the Phillips' home, according to court records, served as a meeting place for townspeople and visitors, many arriving by ferry or horseback.

Archaeologists found farm tools, knee buckles, a farthing coin made during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), English gun flints and about 2,000 clay pipe fragments.

There is evidence that they had a diverse diet, Gallihue said. "They were eating all kinds of things, judging from the variety of animal bones that show evidence of cooking. There are marks that sharp tools will make on bones that will show that the animal was butchered. There are burned carbon deposits that show that an animal was roasted, as opposed to just dying off in a forest somewhere." To the surprise of many, at least a few of the Colonists who inhabited the rural land of what is now Harford County used items from abroad.

Several items found on the site of the Phillips' home, for example, revealed that the family lived a dualistic life - living on the frontier while enjoying the luxuries of European refinement, including table linens and a bottle seal bearing a family crest. "You get a powerful sense of how much trade went back and forth with Europe," Gallihue said.

There was an abundance of tobacco.

Yet, based on the types of disposable clay pipes found at the site, archaeologists determined that instead of making pipes, the settlers shipped them in from Britain.

"We can actually trace some of the pipes to certain shops and certain craftsmen, because we know the marks," Gallihue said.

"That's kind of impressive - that these relatively easy-to-make accessories might be made overseas, just because maybe it was easier or better set up to do things like that."

The dig also turned up a variety of hoes, used primarily for growing tobacco and other crops.

"The way they grew tobacco was very hard work," Gallihue said. "The farms were typically small and took so much work trying to keep the weeds down, trying to handle the crop, trying to keep the bugs off. You kind of get the vision of these people spending their lives swinging a hoe into the dirt."

Yet, he added, "You get the feeling that not everybody was down to their last penny and that people did have a taste for the finer things. Maybe they didn't have as many of them as we do, but they appreciated them. ... One piece, a horse bridle, is really a very fine piece. It's almost as if today if somebody really loves his car would go out and spend $2,000 on fancy wheels for it. Well this person spent a fair amount of money on a bridle for his or her horse."

Today, protecting the site continues to be a priority. Since the discovery, the Army has secured the site with fencing and surveillance to prevent trespassing.

A sign posted on the perimeter warns of potential unexploded munitions underground.

Gallihue's latest challenge is to preserve the findings.

Different materials require varying degrees of care, he said.

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