Munching Goats Helping Solve A History Mystery



Perhaps a herd of goats will help Gibson Islanders solve a mystery that was created when an ancient tulip poplar that blew over six years ago during Tropical Storm Isabel revealed several handmade bricks in its extensively tangled root ball.

Earlier this year, a Gibson Islander out for a stroll with his dog was greeted with a present of a handmade brick when his dog exited the thick underbrush.

A quick glance and the passer-by realized that it wasn't a typical run-of-the-mill Home Depot brick; it turns out it harks back to the 18th century.

The tree and bricks are thought to be part of a grave site, with the identity of its occupant or occupants unknown.

They are located in an area dense with vegetation on the 925-acre Anne Arundel County island that juts into warm Chesapeake Bay waters and was settled in 1640.

"Believe me, you don't want to go up there this time of the year," said Jim Morrison, a retired NASA official who worked in the agency's international office and is president of the Gibson Island Historical Society. "In addition to the vegetation, there are plenty of ticks and chiggers."

Morrison and other volunteers, who had been joined by an archaeologist, spent three days recently probing the site, and despite the difficulty caused by the extensive layers of vegetation, think they've discovered a below-ground, brick-lined burial chamber.

"The site is about 10 feet long with the grave about 4 feet below the surface. When we discovered coffin nails, we stopped. In order to dig in a grave site, special permits are needed," Morrison said the other day.

After Morrison learned that a herd of goats was chewing its way through the invasive vegetation that had become a problem at Hancock's Resolution, a pre-Civil War farm that is now an Anne Arundel County park, he thought goats might be able to solve the vegetation problem at the Gibson Island grave site.

Last Monday, a herd of 29 goats owned by Eco-Goats, a Davidsonville company, entered the rarefied gated confines of Gibson Island, where residents are proscribed from keeping cats.

Their mission is to clear about an acre thought to be a post-Colonial graveyard.

Eco-Goats is a partnership between Dr. Richard and Shannon Garden and licensed forester Brian Knox, who supervises the goats.

Knox explains that using goats to clear sites of vegetation is fairly new to the East but has been used for years out West for fire control.

In order to keep the goats focused on the job at hand, they are confined in an area behind a portable electrified fence that was erected around the work site.

"We have it all - poison ivy, bittersweet, honeysuckle and kudzu - and they like it all. We don't know what we'll find once they're finished," Morrison said.

Even though the timetable calls for the goats to be finished with their work by week's end, they have at times seemed to be observing a work slowdown.

"They're very popular with the residents who have discovered them and have fun watching them. They in turn have fun watching the people," Morrison said, which results in less munching.

"Perhaps they'll work faster if there are fewer people observing them," he said.

Even though they may be goats, "they're big hams when around people," Knox said.

Knox said the goats, who weigh no more than 120 pounds, leave no disturbances - barely a footprint. They like dining on a variety of vegetation but will turn up their noses at toxic plants.

"There is a definite hierarchy of what they like and this is what they'll eat first. They're like kids; they eat the things they like first off their plates," Knox said.

Knox says the goats have a hearty appetite, and 100 goats can eat a half-acre of pesky undergrowth a day, or somewhere in the range of 20 pounds to 30 pounds per goat.

"Since we use no herbicides, it's a green alternative," Knox said.

Meanwhile, Betty deKeyser, a professional genealogist in Pasadena, is working with the group to identify the remains.

"Artifacts found at the grave such as pottery shards and bits of glass have been identified by our archaeologist as dating from 1770 to 1820, so we have a definite time period to date the grave," deKeyser said.

She said it might be John Gibson, for whom the island was named in 1819, or it could be William Worthington, who owned the island in the 18th century and died in 1770.

"Right now, it's a mystery grave," she said. "Our hope is that after the goats have finished their work, we'll be able to locate any other graves that might be there."

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