A lifelong devotion leads to an archaeological gift

Collection: A Deale couple donates Native American artifacts to an Anne Arundel program.

May 17, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

For decades, Dick and Marjorie Johnson walked the fields of rural southern Anne Arundel County, visually scouring the dirt for stones and pottery shards that a plow's blade unearthed.

The Native American artifacts the couple amassed form a collection that experts consider archaeologically priceless. Last month, the Deale couple gave two dozen cartons of spear points, axes, pestles and other items to Anne Arundel County's archaeology program.

Experts hope studies of the artifacts will help them understand what life was like for Native Americans over thousands of years.

"This will be the primary collection of the Indians of the south side of the county for generations to come," said Wayne Clark, chief of the Maryland Office of Museum Services. "For decades to come, some of this may be the only collection because of development" and a shift toward no-till farming.

Clark said many of the artifacts derive from the Algonquins, the Indians who greeted Capt. John Smith in 1607 but who are believed to have come to the Chesapeake Bay area between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. Little is known about the area's earliest dwellers, but the Johnsons' items from that period might shed light on them, Clark said.

"The true story that we don't understand very well is 16,000 years of Maryland prehistory," Clark said. "There is so much yet to learn."

Experts suspect there might have been bands living in the region that long ago - so long that the earliest sites might lie beneath the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, he said.

Clark credits Dick Johnson, a past Archeological Society of Maryland president whom he described as "the lead person to systematically look along the shoreline for sites," with discovering more than a dozen sites.

Self-described as "obsessed," Dick Johnson, 82, began amassing local artifacts after moving to Deale in 1946. The donations got some pieces out of the Johnsons' home for the first time in 48 years, although Dick Johnson uses some items as props in talks to schoolchildren and for discussions with archaeology groups.

Marjorie Johnson, 67, a retired school media aide, attributed her milder interest in local artifacts to her husband.

The pieces range in age from about 10,000 to a few hundred years old. The couple has found 5-pound axes and spear points that resemble guitar picks.

The Johnsons don't know how many items they have accumulated - "thousands upon thousands," Dick Johnson said.

Each of the 20-plus cartons contains 10 meticulously labeled boxes, making it easy to find arrowheads from a particular field.

For now, the cartons are stacked under desks, beneath tables and against walls in the county's cramped archaeology lab outside Annapolis.

What makes the collection so valuable is its detailed cataloguing of each item to pinpoint the site - some fields have multiple sites - where each item was found. That's crucial for archaeologists, especially in Anne Arundel County, where a little more than half of the 1,200-plus recorded archaeological sites are Native American.

"Dick walking a field and recording where he found something is the same as me walking the field" in terms of matching artifacts to sites, said Al Luckenbach, county archaeologist.

Archaeology coding is a garble of numbers and letters. The retired couple devoted the winter of 1998 to the three-step process of marking each artifact: first painting a lacquer base, then writing the code in tiny strokes and topping it with protective lacquer, Marjorie Johnson said.

The county's archaeology staff is starting to add the items to its index.

"We will eventually be studying each site to see how intensively it was occupied at some particular point in time," Luckenbach said.

The locations dot the area from Rose Haven north to the South River, where native populations dwelt for thousands of years. The collection offers the sole look at sites that have been destroyed and paved over.

The age of the settlements lie in such clues as spear points, stones, shells and pottery chips. For example, sites containing abundant periwinkle snail shells are typically older because as farming developed, Native Americans ate fewer tiny periwinkles, experts say. By 1692, Native American families were displaced by white settlers.

To the untrained eye, some of the rocks appear to be ordinary field stones. Holding a palm-size stone, Dick Johnson noted that its sides were not only flat and smooth, but also dimpled from having small pieces of food, probably nuts, pounded into them. He said he is amazed at their makers' resourcefulness and ability to craft tools.

He said he and his wife decided to donate the collection so that other people can study it and because they have spent little time on it lately.

Dick Johnson is an Ohio-born child of migrant workers, and has had a lifelong devotion to amateur archaeology and the history that goes with it. He might have some Cherokee ancestry, but he attributes his interest to a curiosity about the past.

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