The discovery of a discolored and worn-thin penny rarely generates enthusiasm, unless the discoverer is digging into history and the coin provides insight into the life of another era.
Brianne Reynolds, an anthropology student at the University of Maryland, College Park, found the 1891 penny while sifting through what remains of an Irish-American enclave in Baltimore County just north of Timonium.
"It's greenish so it stuck out in the red clay," Reynolds said. "It's definitely in the right period. It's larger and has the face of a Native American."
And since it was found among very old discarded bottles, it may have been spent a century ago at the local tavern.
"You never know what might have dropped out of people's pockets," said Stephen A. Brighton, assistant professor in the university's department of anthropology, who is directing the dig. "There were no recycling bins or garbage pits for household waste then. We could find things that date to the earliest inhabitants."
At the end of Church Lane, just off York Road in Cockeysville, Brighton is leading about a dozen archaeology students in what historians believe is the first survey of an Irish immigrant village in the United States.
The students have unearthed numerous bottles, coins, buttons and shards of pottery that help tell the story of the Irish quarry workers and their families, who settled the area and named it Texas, after the original destination that they never reached.
"About half that original town of Texas is a giant quarry today," Brighton said. "But imagine the road is not here and only a train traveled up and down with mail and other goods for the stone duplexes that were the homes of the Irish quarry workers."
The field school, which is funded by the university, was two years in the planning before Brighton chose Texas as the place most likely to yield information about the Irish diaspora.
"The idea is to find objects people owned and used so we can piece together life stories and create larger stories of the daily life in Texas," Brighton said.
"Many studies have focused on the prominent families, but this is the first to look into the Irish working community."
In the mid-19th century, thousands of Irish immigrants fled the Great Famine in their homeland. Based on the U.S. Census figures, the settlement of Texas began by 1847, and an established Irish community emerged by 1860. The limestone quarried by the Irish was used for building projects such as the Washington Monuments in Washington and Baltimore, the State House in Annapolis, the porticoes of the Senate and House wings of the Capitol in Washington, and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, according to the Center of Heritage Resource Studies at the University of Maryland.
And, Brighton said, those marble steps on Baltimore's rowhouses came from the quarries.
"This site is important because of the prominent role these workers played in the building of this region," Brighton said. "This is the story of immigration, culture and becoming American."
Many Texas residents trace their families to Ballykilcline, an Irish farming community from which about 1,100 people emigrated between 1847 and 1852. Richard Padian, for whom Padonia Road is named, was among the first from that village to settle Texas and probably helped to bring many other kinsmen and former townsfolk there.
"These were people who were evicted from their homes and farms," said Cassie Kilroy Thompson, a former Texas resident who is president of the Ballykilcline Society and is helping with the study. "They were cleared off their land and sent off. I am trying to tie their history to this archaeological record."
The Irish lived by the railroad tracks in modest homes that were known by the names of the generations of the same families who lived in them. They built St. Joseph's, a parish church, of stone from those quarries and were laid to rest in the church cemetery.
They stayed and intermarried in their tightly knit village throughout much of the 20th century, until most of the homes were razed to make way for the light rail line and the extension of Beaver Dam Road to Hunt Valley. Cockeysville has replaced Texas on most maps.
Longtime residents have visited the dig and shared history with the students. One offered a 1925 photo of the first car there and recalled how transportation was typically on horseback - an 1890 horseshoe is among the artifacts unearthed. People rarely made the expensive train trip into the city.
During the six-week course on site, Brighton's students built square excavation units and dug to a depth of about four feet. Using lasers and surveying instruments, they made soil charts and plotted graphs of each unit. The items found will be carefully washed, labeled and studied for several months at Brighton's lab. A similar study, which Brighton undertook a few years ago in Ballykilcline, will give him an opportunity to compare artifacts found in Ireland with those found in Maryland.