When they first detected traces of an 800-year-old wigwam on a bluff over the Patuxent River last year, archaeologists celebrated what they said was the oldest human structure yet found in Maryland.
Now, deeper excavation at the site — the front lawn of a modest rental house — is yielding details of much earlier settlement, extending its history back to at least 3,000 years ago.
"As far as I know, it's older than anything in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, perhaps the oldest structures in the Chesapeake region," said Ann Arundel County archaeologist Al Luckenbach, leader of the dig.
And that's just the age that's been established by carbon-14 dating. Slicing deeper in the sandy bluff overlooking the Patuxent's broad marsh, Luckenbach's crew has found stone tools suggesting that humans were exploiting the river's abundance as far back as 10,000 years ago.
Called Pig Point, the site is producing a gusher of ancient artifacts — decorated pottery, tools crafted from stone and bone, ornaments and food waste that have begun to fill in the details of life along the Patuxent River centuries before Europeans arrived.
"Some of the ceramics that have come out of this site are really just astounding," said Maureen Kavanagh, chief archaeologist at the Maryland Historical Trust and a specialist in ceramics.
There have been pot fragments with incised angular decorations or rims crimped like a pie crust — both different from any ever found in Maryland. Diggers found an intact paint pot the size of a child's fist, and a miniature, decorated pot the size of a thimble.
"These really have us scrambling to figure out what they represent," Kavanaugh said. "Some of these artifacts are one of a kind, and we don't have an easy way of fitting them into our mental template. … It's a great, great site."
Archaeologists say some of their discoveries are so exotic in this region that they suggest Pig Point was a center of trade among native people as far-flung as Ohio, Michigan and New York.
Even today, the town site overlooks broad expanses of wild rice and Tuckahoe — river plants that would have helped to feed the native people. Geese, heron, osprey, bald eagles still patrol the shores. Tiny fish roil the shallows.
Trash middens unearthed in the dig are yielding the remains of freshwater mussels, oysters, fish, beaver, muskrat, otter, deer, duck, nuts and more. Archaeologists have also found carbonized corn kernels, evidence of agriculture.
"It's one of the biggest marshes on the East Coast. You couldn't have starved here if you tried," Luckenbach said
The right site
Luckenbach, trained in prehistoric archaeology but best known for leading excavations of Anne Arundel County's Colonial-era "Lost Towns," said Pig Point has changed the arc of his long career as the county's chief archaeologist.
"I've been waiting 20 years for the right Indian site," he said. "And here we are at Pig Point."
Work at the site began in April 2009, after the owner, William Brown, contacted the county archaeology office about the artifacts he'd been finding. The dig began soon after in the front yard of a rental home on the property.
"This has made me very happy," Brown said of the dig, which he has joined as a volunteer. "It's my opportunity to learn about the people who lived here before us. I'm fortunate I have the time to be here with them, and through every step of it."
Funded this year by Anne Arundel County and a $32,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, the work at Pig Point has astonished Chesapeake archaeologists, who rave about the fine preservation of artifacts and deep layering of the soil.
"Archaeologists just live for these nice, layer-cake sites where the oldest [artifacts] are the most deeply buried, until you get to the modern stuff on top," said Richard J. Dent, professor of anthropology at American University in Washington.
Chesapeake archaeologists more typically encounter artifacts in shallow soil profiles, disturbed at the surface by plows. Some trenches at Pig Point have gone seven feet down without running out of artifacts.
"In fact, in this area I can only point to one site like that in 35 years," Dent said. That was on the Monocacy River, where flooding tends to build up deep layers of soil. At Pig Point, Luckenbach suspects it was wind-blown soil and erosion from higher on the bluff that continually buried older layers over thousands of years.
The project made news last year when his team of a dozen or so professionals and volunteers revealed an oval pattern of "post molds" — dark, round patches in the soil where wooden posts had once been driven into the dirt, then rotted away.