Sifting through the past

Artifacts: Archaeologists search sites along the Rhode River for evidence that will help them expand their understanding of how Native Americans and Colonial settlers lived.

July 18, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Beneath a bluff by the Rhode River, oyster shells are falling out of the bank, which is eroding so readily that several big trees have toppled into the water.

Atop the sandy bluff, archaeologists are digging holes, and the ones close to the water contain fragments of shells and pottery at least 1,000 years old.

"Oysters don't have legs, so somebody brought them up here and ate them," said Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel County's chief archaeologist.

Another archaeological site has been discovered in the Rhode River area south of Annapolis, this one at the YMCA's sprawling Camp Letts in Edgewater. It's the 10th - maybe the 11th - the crew has found in recent months around the river, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. They've been too busy digging, sifting and bagging to remember how many forms they've filled out lately, but they have at least doubled the number of known sites.

Luckenbach and his staff are spending much of the summer digging holes, surveying the water's edge, walking fields - making a rough archaeological assessment of what lies beneath the surface.

In digging more than 70 test pits so far, they have documented 18th-century homesteads and found American Indian sites that go back hundreds of years before that.

The survey, funded through a $36,000 Maryland Historical Trust grant, is aimed at checking on sites that were barely mentioned by amateur archaeologists four decades ago and finding new sites along the river and its creeks. The sparse work that has been done turned up Native American sites up to 3,000 years old as well as evidence of a Colonial settlement.

Archaeologists hope the latest effort to locate - but not excavate - sites will add to what they know about Native Americans' dwelling patterns, dining habits and other aspects of their culture.

It is also to help officials plan for land-use decisions, giving them a rough idea of what is located where.

The Rhode River watershed is part of Anne Arundel County's larger "heritage area," encompassing much of the southern part of the county where residents - some of whose ancestors were colonists - are struggling against increasing development pressure to maintain a more rural setting, protect small towns, and preserve Civil War-era homes and local history.

"Development and erosion are the two big things that affect archaeological sites. In this area you have both development and erosion," said Maureen Kavanagh, chief of the Office of Archaeology of the Maryland Historical Trust. "Ideally, this is the better approach - to be able to know what is there and be able to anticipate, [rather] than go in at the last minute.

Planners say much of the immediate Rhode River waterfront is protected from development in some way, including the camp, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and a waterfront county park.

The county is negotiating to buy the 575-acre Contee farm in Edgewater, along a creek that feeds into the Rhode.

While erosion - historical maps are not detailed enough to show just how much has occurred - can expose sites, it makes others vanish.

"We are seeing evidence of these sites being eroded or developed," said Jane Cox, assistant county archaeologist.

At least one of the old Rhode River sites is nearly washed away. Another is mostly buried under stones at the water's edge. Another has sprouted a development.

Taking their shovels to Edgewater recently, archaeologists dug narrow, 2-foot-deep test pits to give them an idea of who might have been enjoying the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay and when. A hole was dug, and its contents piled onto a screen for a good shaking, followed by a careful examination of whatever didn't fall through the screen.

Everything that looked handmade or charred, as well as big shells, went into labeled plastic bags for washing and cataloging. Everything else went back in the hole.

Holes close to the water had thick layers of oyster shells, suggesting the presence of an oyster midden, or pile of discarded shells, that dates to a time when native people stuck their hands in the water and pulled out oysters the size of dinner plates. The midden might be as much as 120 feet wide, used and reused over centuries.

Understanding the early native populations is difficult largely because there are no written records that document or explain how they lived, said Cara Fama, the county's archaeology lab director.

In comparison, old-timers in the region have told archaeologists that small, family-run oyster-processing operations dotted the edges of rivers below Annapolis, and there are historical records of some, Cox said.

"We know that the Native Americans were basically on a seasonal round, spending part of the year over here getting oysters and part of the year over on the Patuxent [River] getting fish. They came back to the same site year after year," Luckenbach said. They hunted, and ate berries and plants.

For how many years they returned would be unclear but for other artifacts - bits of pottery and flakes of stone.

Test holes farther from the water yielded such finds as a shard of pottery estimated to date from between 750 B.C. to 400 B.C., another piece from as recently as A.D. 500, a hunk of quartz whose smooth surfaces suggest it was used in tool making, and something charred, suggesting a campfire that might have been used to smoke food to preserve it for winter, Cox said.

Said Luckenbach: "They were coming back here for maybe 1,000 years."

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