Youngsters get a chance to dig into the city's past

Teens funded by the city's YouthWorks program discover archaeology while unearthing fragments of clues about how the working class lived in Hampden during the 1800s.

July 30, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Sifting through buckets of dirt in a Hampden backyard, 15-year-old Anthony Williams believes he has found something to add to the plastic bag of pottery and glass bottle fragments at his feet.

He bounds over to David Gadsby, one of two graduate students leading the dig, and shows him the potential artifact.

"That," Gadsby says, "is a rock."

It doesn't matter. Since the beginning of the month, Williams and other city students have been digging through people's backyards in and around Hampden, searching for anything that might help paint a better picture of working-class Baltimore during the 1800s.

With the help of four teens -- three of them funded through the city's YouthWorks program -- Gadsby and Bob Chidester are hoping to discover more about the neighborhood's mill workers.

Sometimes, they come across items that could be useful. Other times, it's just another hole in Paula Carder's lawn.

"Anything we find helps us learn about the daily lives of Baltimore's working class," Gadsby said. "Generally, people not represented in the historical record are the poor. This, hopefully, is a way to address that."

Today, they will invite the community to watch and participate in their search, as well as learn about the rich history of the area from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

They just started working in Carder's sloping lawn, which sits tucked away at 721 Field St. overlooking the Chestnut Avenue Mill Center, and had dug four holes as of Thursday. The University of Maryland, College Park's Center for Heritage Resource Studies is sponsoring the six-week project as part of an effort to see whether a longer dig in the area is worth pursuing.

The findings in urban digs usually aren't awe-inspiring at first -- or even appear to rate a second glance -- but can help provide a better description of how people lived during the time period, said Charles Hall, the state's land archaeologist.

"It's not glamorous stuff, but you're not looking for anything of intrinsic value like gold or diamonds," Hall said. "It's more about what these objects can tell us about these people's lives. History records the stories of folks who write it. And there's an awful lot who don't write, who work and struggle and don't ever have the opportunity to write history."

Mundane items such as the bottles and pottery can be dated, either through the level of strata from which they are recovered or the type of material they are made of. Combined with known historical facts from the area, these items can be used to fill in the blanks of how mill workers lived.

Sometimes, the simple findings yield extraordinary results. While working on the Lost Towns project in Anne Arundel County four years ago, Gadsby was able to fit together four different pieces of a pipe from the 1600s. It was one of a number of discoveries from Providence, Anne Arundel's oldest European settlement, that turned out to be the earliest examples of manufacturing in the New World.

Hampden grew out of a cluster of houses built for workers in 1802 by the owners of flour and cotton mills along the Jones Falls Valley.

For decades, the area thrived under an increasing demand for cotton duck, used to make ship sails. The mills faded away after the Depression as the demand dried up and mill owners moved south in search of lower labor costs.

The square holes are carefully measured, then dug no deeper than 20 centimeters until hitting the subsoil, an orange clay surface. Gadsby and Chidester, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, do most of the technical work to ensure proper scientific methods are followed. The students help with that technical work, and then dive into the dirt to search for historical items.

So far, Gadsby says, they've found pottery, marbles, glass bottles, a tiny porcelain doll, and a piece of a chandelier.

"We didn't think we [were] going to find nothing," said Williams, who after weeks of digging still gets a kick out of every fragment he discovers.

Not only do they get to dig all day and participate in a doctoral thesis project, but the teens are getting paid. Through the city's YouthWorks program, which last year placed 5,000 students in jobs, three local students were directed to the project and receive minimum wage. The Hampden Community Council provided funds for the fourth student.

Williams, a 10th-grader at W.E.B. DuBois High School, thinks he's found a future career -- or at least a future hobby.

"I'm gonna do this next summer. And in the winter," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.