Lost And Found

Dig Day At Historic London Town Allows Visitors To Wrap Their Hands Around Some Forgotten History

July 05, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

In her hands, a scrap becomes a story.

Jessie Grow fishes through a box full of what looks to be junk, pulling out a 2-inch fragment of clay pipe. It brings to mind a time long ago - hard to imagine now - when men, women and children routinely smoked tobacco, thinking it was good for their health.

A rust-eaten nail evokes the late 1600s, when settlers near the South River built small homes out of wood, never realizing they wouldn't last 30 years in termite-infested Maryland.

And a chunk of pottery evokes Colonial days, when traders from the Far East shipped their fine porcelain to the mid-Atlantic region in exchange for tobacco - the crop that gave birth to London Town, a bustling community that served as a major seaport for 90 years, then silently passed away.

Welcome to Historic London Town and Gardens, the Anne Arundel County park that houses one of the richest archaeological sites in Maryland: 100 acres packed with artifacts dating back three centuries. Grow is education coordinator here, an archaeologist who has tramped the grounds for more than half her life.

Grow, 26, and her colleagues will share their soil-sifting and storytelling skills with the public on Saturday, when young and old alike are invited to the park for Dig Day, when visitors can play archaeologist alongside the pros, digging up the shards that speak of Maryland's past.

"Material culture is fascinating," says Grow, who will lead informal tours, answer questions and help guests methodically sift through piles of soil that day. "Many [early Marylanders] had no written history, so their story has gone silent. We tell that story by looking at [the artifacts] and making educated guesses. I think it's what people enjoy."

She ought to know. When she was 12, growing up in nearby Davidsonville, her father read about a "dig day" at London Town and asked his daughter whether she'd like to go. She did, and she didn't miss one for the next four years.

"I just loved it from the beginning," says Grow, who studied public archaeology - the art of sharing archaeological findings and their meaning with the public - in college and graduate school and scored a full-time gig centered on the London Town dig in 2007.

Her job includes leading the site's tours for visitors, including regular field trips for schoolchildren, and giving talks.

When the economy was stronger and grants more plentiful, there were as many as six Dig Days per year. Now there are three, including the one next weekend and another Sept. 12.

Then, as now, they were free to the public.

Some Dig Days, officials say, have attracted as many as 190 people, including wannabe excavators from up and down the East Coast. Most draw in the neighborhood of 70, including elementary schoolchildren, retirees and every age in between.

London Town is one of three active sites that make up the Lost Towns Project, a nonprofit archaeological enterprise begun in the early 1990s by Al Luckenbach, official archaeologist for Anne Arundel County and heavily supported by the county government. The others are the Colonial-era Samuel Chew mansion, discovered near Deale two years ago after years of searching, and Pig Point, a site on Jug Bay near the county's southern tip. (Pig Point made news just last week when staffers found the oldest human structure ever detected in Maryland.)

Luckenbach's staff of eight and teams of volunteers are also searching for a prime county site at which to study the Middle Woodland period (about 200-500 A.D.).

But London Town, where the public will dig, listen to lectures and be able to interact with staff next weekend, has proved especially rich.

When his crew started excavating in the neighborhood in 1994, Luckenbach knew the old port was nearby, but he had no idea so much of it lay in the 23-acre park itself. Over the past 15 years, as they've sifted through much of the county-owned land in 5-foot-by-5-foot sections, Luckenbach and company have been able to map it out in detail, and a portrait of life in the "lost town" has emerged.

Historians knew some salient facts. Maryland's Colonial government, needing a place from which to ship tobacco, founded the site as an official port in 1683. Its status grew, drawing craftsmen, seafarers, innkeepers and more.

"Nothing was here before," says Grow. "But this was a strategic site. The South River was like I-95."

The town thrived until just before the Revolutionary War, when the Maryland government - in order, some say, to foster the growth of Annapolis - moved the tobacco taxing station elsewhere. By 1780, London Town was virtually gone.

What was not known was the warp and woof of life in the town. That was left to archaeologists, the men and women whose job is part physical (digging, sifting with screens, sorting, storing), part narrative (assembling from the artifacts an ever-richer, more-accurate tale of the life lived by those who used the stuff).

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