Saturday, December 1, 2007

This Week's Campaign

The drawing is an 1888 survey of Port Tobacco completed by a man named Page. We have re-drafted his plat and scaled it to our project map. You can see the extent of our shovel testing to date, relative to the town as it appeared in 1888. (You may want to click on the drawing to make it larger, opening it in your image software.)

This week, from Monday December 3rd to Thursday the 4th, we begin work in the northern part of town. We will shovel test the Volman's property. Their residence, Chimneys House, is one of the three surviving Colonial buildings in Port Tobacco. April will post blogs from the field on our progress. This work represents a new phase of our study and the results will appear in a separate report. We are working on the report for the southern part of town now.

Volunteers, as always, are welcome. Just check the blog for any last minute cancellations due to inclement weather.


Friday, November 30, 2007

More on the Square

April is still hobnobbing with her fellow wizards in Washington, DC...the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association. We expect her to return to us all the smarter for having gone. While awaiting her return, I offer this little bit more on the excavation of TP3 in front of the courthouse where, as you will recall from yesterday, we are trying to determine the age of the town square. Had it been there as long as the courthouse, or was it a later development modeled on New England town squares in the wake of the centennial (1876) celebration?

The photograph above shows the mortared brick foundation along the east edge of the unit. The drawing illustrates the profiles of the West and North walls. The excavators were very conservative in removing the soil, resulting in eight identified strata, including the brick foundation. The Munsell soil color values (e.g., 10YR3/3 is dark brown) and soil textures suggest that A & B and F & G could be combined into two layers. The dates included with the soil descriptions are based on my review of the artifact catalogue.

Strata F and G contain prehistoric and Colonial materials. The layers above formed during the 19th and 20th centuries. The little bit of masonry rubble (common red soft mud brick and lime mortar) in those lower layers suggest that the brick foundation may date to the Colonial period, while the large quantity of masonry rubble in Strata B and C suggests that the structure was demolished late in the historic period.

Based on this small unit, we cannot stay definitively whether this is an 18th-century building or a 20th-century building constructed of cannibalized brick; but the artifacts strongly suggest that this part of the site was occupied in the 18th century.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

How Old is the Village Square?

Testing in front of the courthouse. TP3 (blue dashed circle) produced 18th-century artifacts.

During the "Great Volunteer Weekend" in late October (the stuff of legends), Pete excavated TP3 with a number of volunteers. They removed seven levels of soil around the remnant of a brick foundation. Long-time residents have identified this location as one of two houses built by a local character out of bricks "cannibalized" out of the demolished courthouse and jail. But the our local character clearly wasn't the first one to have lived barely 50 ft in front of the courthouse.

The excavators recovered relatively few artifacts from the 3 ft by 3 ft unit, but among those pieces were 13 sherds of creamware and one of British Brown stoneware, all classic 18th-century artifacts. Twelve of the creamware sherds came from the lowest level of the excavation.

The surviving maps of Port Tobacco all date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and all of them may have been based on the 1888 Page survey, which clearly shows the courthouse and a number of buildings around the periphery of a village square. We do not question the accuracy of Page's survey, but we have wondered whether there had always been a village square; hence the reason behind excavating TP3. We are not sold on the evidence, but there is reason to continue testing the area in front of the courthouse to determine whether the square dates back to 1727/8, or if it is a much later construction, possibly created to further the town's assertion that it should remain the county seat. We'll have more on the results of the testing in front of the courthouse after our next round of fieldwork next week.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Native American Site Found

Portion of site where the team has identified a prehistoric Indian site based on stone flakes (contour lines) and pottery (blue dots) recovered from shovel tests. Click on image to enlarge.

We've been cleaning up the catalogue and just beginning the various analyses in preparation for report writing. (Jim's adage: If it isn't properly reported, it isn't archaeology.) I've started off with a spatial analysis of Native American pottery and flaked stone. That means I've been looking at where Indian pottery and the slivers of stone resulting from stone tool-making occur. As you can see from the map, we have a concentration of stone flakes (the contour lines) with a smattering of Indian pottery (the blue dots). I used a computer program to simulate the distribution of flakes across the site based on the number of pieces found in each of the shovel test pits. Shovel test 265 produced the largest number of flakes in this particular area, a total of 13.

There being too few pottery sherds to conduct a similar analysis, I simply color-coded those shovel tests that produced at least one sherd. They likely are related to the flake distribution and, together, the flakes and sherds suggest that we found a Late Woodland (post AD 900) Indian site 50 ft away from the Episcopal Church foundation.

Better yet, this is only one of three prehistoric Indian sites identified as a result of our shovel testing. There is a smaller one to the southwest and a much larger and richer Indian site closer to the river bank.

The analysis of the Indian component of the site does not end here: we will be looking more carefully at the kinds of objects recovered from each of the three sites, including dates of occupation from the pottery and projectile point (arrowhead) styles, distinguishing between tool manufacture and repair, and searching for evidence of food processing and preparation. Keep in mind that each of the three Indian sites lies within, or overlaps, a Colonial or 19th-century site. Busy place, this Port Tobacco.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Josiah Henson

As I mentioned last week, I'd like to feature another historical figure with ties to Port Tobacco. Today's blog features Josiah Henson.

Henson was a slave near Port Tobacco and is alleged to be the person that Harriet Beecher Stowe based her character Uncle Tom on in her work Uncle Tom's Cabin. Born at Port Tobacco in 1789, Henson provided one of the first known narratives by a slave about his captivity. In his autobiography he mentions names of owners near Port Tobacco. "I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N., about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP., but was hired by Mr. N., to whom my father belonged."
Research has revealed that Mr. N refers to Francis Newman and Dr. McP is Dr. Josiah McPherson. He also references a blacksmith named Hewes who was responsible for a severe whipping administered to his father.
It is also noted that Matthew Henson, the explorer who reached the North Pole in 1909 with Robert Peary, is the great grand nephew of Josiah.
I know I speak for the whole team when I say we are looking forward to another few days in the field the first week of December. Archaeology folks like us live for this!

Monday, November 26, 2007


Let me apologize for the lack of blogging last week as I have been out on sites and not in the office. So we've covered many things in our artifact discussions including ceramics, gun flints, and tobacco pipes. And there are many other things to talk about as well in terms of artifacts. One thing we find alot of, especially at Port Tobacco, are nails. With most sites having buildings on them, nails are sure to be found.

While today's nails are rounded and are called "wire" nails, they have changed throughout history. Nails can be traced back thousands of years and have been in use around the world.

Before the modern wire nail, we had the machine cut nail. Which was just that, a nail that was cut from a piece of flat iron to shape a nail. There were different kinds of machine cut nails too. Some had no head to them, some with machine heads and others with hand tooled heads. These nails came into use in the America's around the mid-18th Century and up until the early 20th Century.

The predecessor of the machine cut nail was the hand wrought nail which was forged from iron and were not very uniform.

While nails are always a nice find on a site because it tells us that there were buildings there, the dating of nails can be difficult at best. Since the production of different kinds of nails overlap each other in terms of time, the best we can do is use them to date by century which doesn't give us the more exact dates we always strive to find.

On another note, I hope everyone enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday!


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Railroad Woes

1864 map.

1897 map.

On January 1, 1873, the Popes Creek Branch of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad opened for regular service between Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County to Popes Creek, Maryland. Take a look at the 1864 map of the region, drafted by the United States Army. The railroad, of course, isn't there, but Port Tobacco is. Now look at the 1897 map: not only does it depict the railroad, but it shows the railroad passing through the relatively new town of La Plata and bypassing Port Tobacco. La Plata does not appear on the 1864 map.

This is not an unusual story. Hollywood westerns often portray parties feuding over the location of prospective railroads, each side recognizing the economic benefits of being a station and the potential economic catastrophe of being bypassed in favor of a neighboring settlement. Such stories are true, and they are no less true for Eastern localities than those on the plains and deserts of the West. Port Tobacco was not on the line and La Plata was: the outcome seemed certain, but it is a testament to the resolve of Port Tobaccoans and the home field advantage of hosting the county seat that it took more than 20 years for La Plata to prevail.

By the way: April and I have been busy editing some works for publication, one that I am revising with some other colleagues on the responses of New York State farmers to the rapid growth of the cheese factory system, the other an edited volume that April has spearheaded on the archaeology of institutions (schools, asylums, prisons). Sorry: neither is likely to appear on the shelves of your local bookseller.