Dig it!

Like Indiana Jones, you can help find lost archaeological treasures -- and you don't even have to leave the state

May 17, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Reporter

He'll face down Soviet spies, penetrate jungles and wrangle giant ants in his quest for a skull possessed of strange magical powers.

When Harrison Ford hits movie theaters next week in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - his fourth turn as America's favorite globe-trotting archaeologist - his character's exploits will quicken a few million more pulses than the day-to-day work of his brethren in the real world.

But a lack of derring-do is no reason, professionals say, that Marylanders should miss out on the many opportunities they'll have to take part in archaeological excavations this summer.

"In real life, we do carry more bug spray than we do bullwhips," says Al Luckenbach, an Anne Arundel County archaeologist whose work has long drawn on the energy and talents of members of the public, young and old. "But on a different scale, we find our own amazing things. We reconstruct the past ... [and] we can't do it without volunteers."

Luckenbach and colleagues direct the Lost Towns Project, an enterprise that has been locating and exploring Colonial and period sites throughout Anne Arundel County since 1991. Centered these days on a 23-acre parcel in Edgewater called Historic London Town and Gardens, the project focuses on London, a long-lost town on the South River that thrived as a port between 1683 and the late 1700s.

The site is so rich in artifacts from that era, Luckenbach says, that it has probably yielded more than a million pieces, many of them unearthed by volunteers who came by, got a little training and set to work - just as people can do this summer.

"We're digging at a number of different sites," he says, "some from the 1600s, some from the Colonial period. There's a variety of field opportunities."

Members of the public ages 16 and older can help the pros excavate around the county during the week, and volunteers of all ages can help excavate London Town on any of three organized "Dig Days" held per year (children younger than 15 must be accompanied by an adult).

Two Dig Days remain this year, one on July 12 and a second on Sept. 6. Volunteers can listen to staff presentations, take organized tours of the site, learn the rudiments of archaeological digging and sift for period artifacts, from shards of pottery to handmade nails to bits of pipe that serve as reminders that London was a thriving tobacco port.

Lost Towns is only one of the many opportunities open to aspiring Indiana Joneses. The Archeological Society of Maryland and the Maryland Historical Trust are hosting two 11-day field sessions this summer.

The first, at the Claggett Retreat in Frederick County, starts May 23 and runs through June 2. It's what archaeologists call a "prehistoric" site, which means that it dates to life before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. Joe Dent, the principal investigator, calls it a "single component" site: Its materials and features all represent a single moment in time, the Late Woodland period (roughly 500 A.D. to 1000 A.D.) of American Indian history.

The second session - at Port Tobacco in Charles County - starts June 13 and runs through June 23. In a project that will long outlast the summer, archaeologists are excavating Port Tobacco, a town that was founded in the early 1700s, became a bustling port community filled with shops and dwellings and warehouses, and ultimately succumbed when silt from the eroding land of neighboring farms enveloped it.

"Our main goal," says Jim Gibb, the project's director, "is to recover the history of Port Tobacco, from Native American occupation right up to the present time." The field session will include excavation of units near the old town square.

Opportunities await elsewhere in the state. For 20 years, Archaeology in Annapolis - a co-production of the anthropology department at the University of Maryland, College Park and the Historic Annapolis Foundation - has operated a field school in urban archaeology, offering a select few volunteers a chance to help construct the historic narrative of the diverse peoples of Annapolis. Further afield, Calvert County offers both the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, which hosts a public archaeology program from May through July 5, and the Calvert Marine Museum, which offers full days of supervised paleontology - the study of fossils and what they tell us about the past - on June 14, Aug. 16 and Sept. 20.

"This year we are digging on a site that dates from 1711 to around 1750" at the old Smith plantation at Jefferson Patterson, says Ed Chaney, deputy director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at the museum. Volunteers will concentrate on an old slave quarter and a building that doesn't appear on maps of the period.

At the Calvert museum, people ages 8 and older can safely and legally explore the rich fossil deposits along the beach at Calvert Cliffs, then discuss their findings with trained paleontologists.

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