Hands on prehistory

Council member heads Native American artifact project

December 21, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Although he has no degrees in archaeology or anthropology, Richard Slutzky has made a hobby of studying Native American culture.

About 30 years ago, Slutzky, who was the department chair of health and physical education and the wrestling coach at Aberdeen High, took his hobby into the classroom.

"I would trade places with the AP history teacher and for about an hour and a half I would give a brief overview of Native American culture," said Slutzky, who serves as the vice president of the county council. "Word got out, and museums and other organizations started calling me to give my presentation, and it mushroomed."

Recently, Slutzky took his hobby to the next level, when he was called to oversee a project that includes identifying and cataloging a collection of more than 500 early Native American artifacts. This collection is not the only one of its kind in the county.

As a growing number of such collections are being identified throughout the county, a committee has been formed to explore the possibility of starting a new museum or exhibiting the collections in current museums in the county, Slutzky said.

"Harford County has a plethora of museums," he said. "It's time to establish a center for Native American culture, whether it is attached to a current museum or a new building. Either way, it's important to preserve the early Native American history of this area."

The collection that Slutzky is working on was donated to the historical society by Bill and Charlotte Cronin, who started the Aberdeen Room, a repository of artifacts that depict Aberdeen History.

Charlotte Cronin's father, Clinton Sterling Garretson, who was born in Aberdeen, collected the artifacts in the early 1900s, she said. He took walks around Aberdeen Proving Ground before it was a military installation, along the banks of the Susquehanna River, at the site of the construction of the Conowingo Dam and in local fields, she said.

"My dad was always going for his finds, as he called it," Charlotte Cronin said. "He never dug for anything. He would wait for the farmers to plow in the spring and then go looking for artifacts after it rained. He said it was a delightful experience to see the artifacts shining in the soil."

Cronin donated a portion of her father's collection to the historical society so that it would be shared with people interested in Native American culture, she said. She asked Slutzky, 65, also an Aberdeen resident, to help catalog the collection because of his study of Native American groups, which began in the late 1970s, he said.

In the 1990s, Slutzky and his wife started traveling to Native American reservations in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado to study the tribal cultures firsthand. They also visited Native American museums and isolated powwows, he said.

Throughout his travels he has amassed a collection of books about Native Americans dating to as early as the 1580s, he said. His house is packed with Native American reproductions, including weapons, clubs, baskets, pottery and Navajo rugs, he said.

"I have a lot of reproductions," he said. "My house is full of Native American items. But I am learning how much I don't know about how to classify and identify Cronin's artifacts."

Although he is seeking the expertise of archaeologists or anthropologists to help identify the era of origin, he has managed to broadly identify some of the pieces as quartz, flint and jasper weapons and tools of local tribes from the county's early history, he said.

Some of these items have the potential to date back as far as the Paleolithic period, he said. A majority of the artifacts are from the Archaic and Early Woodland periods, he said.

"Some people can pick up an item and tell you all about it by just looking at it," he said. "I want to bring their expertise into this project."

In addition to identifying the artifacts, Slutzky is looking to answer questions that no one else seems to have answered, he said.

For example, very few artifacts from the late Woodland period are found in Harford County, he said. "This area was not populated constantly," he said. "There was a period where no one lived here. I want to get into why there was no one here. My theory is that this was a mutual hunting ground for all the tribes. They figured that this area was so valuable with resources that they agreed to share it."

One recent afternoon, he showed some of the artifacts that were neatly laid out on tables and covered with a cloth.

"Many of these items were used as tools," he said picking up a long, skinny piece of stone. "Some of them were hand tools that were used as scrapers or diggers. The smaller-sized ones were used as weapons because they could easily swing them."

Once the items are cataloged, they need to determine how to share them with the public, he said.

"First, we need to establish the right history of each piece, that includes how it was used and what it represents," he said. "We don't need more artifacts; we need a place to give people the educational piece, the historic piece and the prehistoric piece of the items."

His interest is primarily in the historic piece, he said. He wants to give kids a hands-on experience using the artifacts, he said.

"I would like to give kids a way that they can appreciate prehistory, not just history," he said.

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