Past makes a home in its new digs

Archaeologists gain light, elbow room in new laboratory at London Town and Gardens complex in Edgewater

June 27, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to the Sun

Betty Williams sat in the sunlight pouring through the windows of Anne Arundel County's new archaeology lab, washing off sticks and vegetation from piles of crumbled brick, mortar and oyster shells.

Next to her, Anne Tiffany used a toothbrush to scrub dirt off broken pottery, glass and nails.

The bright, airy lab, part of the new $5.1 million visitors center complex at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, is a vast improvement for the volunteers, unpaid college interns and 10-person staff who work to preserve the county's past.

The lab, which opened a couple of weeks ago, replaces a small, windowless office in the county's office complex in Annapolis

"It's hard to keep volunteers cheerful under those circumstances," said Al Luckenbach, the county archaeologist.

The new lab has 1,800 square feet on the first floor - more than double the space of the old office - and 3,500 more in the basement, which in a few years will house an exhibit, classroom and several offices, said Donna Ware, executive director of Historic London Town and Gardens. An unfinished sub-basement eventually will be used for storage.

The rest of the building, a former wastewater sewage plant, has been turned into the two-story visitors center, with rooms for showing exhibits, film viewing and schoolchildren's visits. It opened in September.

The old office is about the same size as the lab's new conservation room. The conservation room has a fume hood, which allows technicians to use chemicals such as acetone to clean glass in the lab. Without a fume hood in the old lab, technicians had to take glass artifacts to a state lab in Crownsville, said Erin Cullen, director of the archaeology lab. The conservation room also has enough space for technicians to process photos of the artifacts.

In a partnership with the Anne Arundel County Public Library, the new lab already has stocked several shelves in the research area with books about Colonial history and art. The public will be allowed to use the new library by appointment.

The county's early Colonial presence and Native American sites make it a hotbed of history. The Maryland Colonial legislature established London Town in 1683. By 1720 the ferry crossing had become a thriving port for tobacco exports. The English, Dutch, French and Italians traded goods for the tobacco, leaving behind a global cross-section of ceramics and art. Competition from another port and the Revolutionary War killed off London Town by 1780, Luckenbach said.

The port became one of several "lost towns" of the Chesapeake Bay that archaeologists are trying to rediscover.

To handle the enormous task of locating artifacts - many of which are fragments that can fit easily on the tip of one's finger - the county hosts school groups on Wednesdays during the school year to sift dirt through screens. At least three times a year, the county holds Saturday dig days for families.

Archaeologists assign groups 5-foot-by-5-foot dig sections. All artifacts are bagged and then cleaned by volunteers, such as Tiffany and Williams. Then researchers carefully document artifacts from each section so they can learn as much as they can about how the site originally looked, Luckenbach said. An abundance of bricks in one section can indicate the presence of a fireplace. Glass in another section can indicate the presence of windows. All of this information is being used to reconstruct the original buildings.

In digging through the dirt layers under where Rumney's Tavern once stood, Luckenbach has found the bones of fish, pigs and other animals that would have been disposed of beneath the floorboards of the tavern. The smell of rotting carcasses would not have offended Colonial customers, who also would have been accustomed to the stench of the tavern's chamber pots emptied just outside the windows, Luckenbach said.

Still, the evidence of an intact perfume vial found in the tavern indicates otherwise.

"At least one person at Rumney's Tavern thought it was a smelly affair," Luckenbach said.

Tourists eventually will be able to see the lab and watch volunteers, such as Mike McCleary, process artifacts. McCleary, an anthropology major at the University of Delaware, picked up a piece of pottery Monday and asked Luckenbach how he should label it. Luckenbach identified the brown piece of ceramic as a piece from an English beer stein from around 1725.

"This provides great hands-on experience," said McCleary, who is working on an archaeology concentration within his major.

Tiffany and Williams come in on Mondays to clean artifacts. Tiffany, 74, became involved with the lab about eight months ago when she went out on a dig.

Williams, 80, however, has been going out on digs since the 1970s and has been working with the archaeology lab since 1992. Although her health prevented her from going on a dig this year, she likes to come in to the lab and clean the artifacts.

"Nice and messy and wet," Williams said. "I don't mind that at all."

The London Town Visitors Center will hold "Revolutionary London Town," a living-history day to celebrate the visitor center's grand opening, from noon to 4 p.m. July 8.

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