More Than One Way to Read a Census: Working on Census Transcription for AiA’s “Locating People in the Past” Project

In the past six months, I have been part of Archaeology in Annapolis’ (AiA) project “Locating People in the Past.” This innovative project takes existing historic U.S. census data and two historic maps to create new, spatial information about people living in Talbot County, Maryland in the second half of the 19th century. With the help of a grant from the Future of Information Alliance, AiA used GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to digitize the maps and census data, and combined them into an interactive, public, map.

Locating People in the Past image

How did we do it? Ben Skolnik, Beth Pruitt and Stefan Woehlke combined the 1860 U.S. Census for Talbot Co. with an 1858 map, and the 1880 U.S. Census with an 1877 map. The result is a map that shows roads, structures, property boundaries and land owners along with demographic information about the individuals, enslaved and free, living in each district in the county. One of the goals of this project was to be able to use this spatial data to better understand changes in the distribution of plantations and of the movement of enslaved and freed individuals from the height of the plantation economy (1860s) to after Emancipation (1880s).

Talbot Co 1860 Enslaved 1858 roads 1858 Dilworth Map

Example of 1858 map overtop of modern map depicting enslaved population from 1860 census. Districts in darker red indicate higher number of enslaved individuals. (


  • How did plantations change geographically over this period of time?
  • Which parts of the county had the highest populations of enslaved individuals in 1860 as opposed to 1880, and what could this mean for the archaeological record?

These questions don’t have easy answers but this project is a tool with which to begin to answer them.

My involvement with this project was small but crucial for its success; ensuring that the census data from 1860 and 1880 was completely transcribed into a digital format that could be used with GIS. In other words, typing up thousands of individual entries into an excel sheet so they can be used in a digital format. I learned a lot through the transcription process about knowing how to read the census: both literally reading the handwriting of different census enumerators as well as analyzing what the census information can tell us about that point in U.S. history. I gained a better understanding of how the historical records as well as the new spatial data can be used in historical archaeology projects.

I’ll start with the question “why does this matter?” It is important for two main reasons. First, it can aid genealogical research that is important to the community. AiA continues to work with people in and around Annapolis, MD whose ancestors are known to have been in the area for many generations. Descendants will be able to search the digitized data sets for individuals using the interactive map. What makes this different from other tools like is the ability to locate a person on the historic map, and then be able to compare it to a modern map. It also allows for data to be analyzed geographically and over time. In other words, ideally, we can look up a person based on the 1860 census, place them on the 1858 map, and identify how that historic data translates to our roads and buildings today. We must, however, keep in mind the limits of this data, since not every census name was matched with a name on the historic maps. Future projects of this kind will hopefully be able to increase the success rate of finding these matches. For the records that have been matched, we hope the map can fill gaps in information for living descendants.

Secondly, this project is important because it can enhance our understanding of where important archaeological sites might be as well as draw connections between the material culture and historic records at late 19th century sites. On a broader scale, this data can be used to better understand the changes that occurred after the Civil War. Transcribing hand-written census documents into a digital format like an excel sheet makes the information search-able and can be easily manipulated to see trends regarding occupations, illnesses, and race based on the sub-districts within Talbot County. For example, in transcribing the 1880 census for Talbot County I found that many black residents, while at that point free individuals, still held servant or farm laborer positions. I became interested not only in how the data changed from the 1860 to the 1880 census, but changes in how data was collected in those two census periods.

One of the major differences between the 1860 and 1880 censuses is the type of information recorded before and after emancipation. From 1860 to 1880, the U.S. Census changed in these ways:

  • Values of “real estate” and “personal estates” were no longer recorded on the schedule
  • Illnesses, disabilities and reading and writing literacy were recorded with more detail
  • All persons’ names were recorded and there was no need for a “Slave Schedule”
  • The birthplace of each person’s mother and father were added
1900 History of US Census snipit slave schedule

Report on the History of the US Census describing changes made to the 1880 Census with the omission of the Slave Schedule. (Wright-Hunt 1900)


My superficial analysis of these changes in the census show that after the American Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment, the US government no longer needed criteria for recording slaves and instead added criteria for tracking literacy, health and families. The 1860 census only recorded the names of free people. Enslaved individuals were recorded in aggregate with no personal identification.

Additionally, another important change to the 1880 Census was in its enumeration process. The government wanted to make the process faster and more accurate. They wanted the whole processed completed in two weeks, or 12 working days, rather than the 100 working days it took for the 1870 census to be completed. It was during the 1880 census period that a Superintendent of Census was appointed by the President under the Department of the Interior and one or two Supervisors were appointed in each state to advise on best practices for the district subdivisions. This meant there were more Census Supervisors than judicial marshals, which added “a higher degree of local knowledge” and a “closer and more direct supervision of the actual work of enumeration” (Wright-Hunt 1900). Congress was in agreement that a quicker and more detailed census of the population was worth the legislative and executive time and money spent.

Census 1880 snipit

1880 Census records showing common occupations. (1880 US Federal Census)

One of the challenges I encountered was learning how to read 19th century terms and handwriting. Many occupations were familiar, like Oysterman, Inn Keeper, or Farmer, but others like Milliner (ladies hat-maker), or Hod Carrier (brick and cement carriers) were less familiar. I also didn’t recognize some of the common illnesses for the time period. For example, “Childbed fever” came up as an illness a few times for mothers who had young children. I learned through an NPR story that Childbed fever was an illness affecting women who were exposed to germs and other infections during child birth. A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, came to the conclusion that mothers who had their babies delivered by doctors who were also doing autopsies had a higher-rate of death by this illness than did mothers who had midwives (who did not perform autopsies). His discovery prompted his advocacy for hand-washing in hospitals, although he was unaware of what we know today as “germs.” It is possible that the mothers in the census who had childbed fever gave birth under similar situations which led to their illness.

In the process of digitizing these census records, I saw stories emerge from the text – both of the people recorded and of the enumerators doing the recording. I imagined what it was like for the census takers walking from home to home in the heat of June in Maryland. Did they sit at people’s tables and speak with the head of the house? Or did they draw attention from everyone in the household, like in this 1870 census depiction from the Library of Congress?

1870_census_med Library of Congress

Picture: 1870 Census drawing. Courtesy of Library of Congress.


I could see a distinct difference between each enumerator based on how completely and neatly the enumerators recorded information – understanding that they, too, were people and had different personalities that came through in their task of hand-recording the census.

The census enumerators in 1860 and 1880 were actively participating in recording their history – a snapshot of their country at a specific point in time. Today, archaeologists from the University of Maryland, are using this information to better understand the social, cultural and economic contexts of Talbot County in a postbellum America. The Locating People in the Past project set out to reveal gaps in archival information using geospatial analysis. But I believe that information about the process of data collection in the late 19th century was also revealing. The laws and protocols surrounding the census enumeration can be just as informative about how our government changed in the years after the Civil War. This concept can be applied to the archaeology we do today. Archaeology, too, requires a particular methodology in data collection which is just as important to understand as the data that we collect.

-Sarah Janesko, MAA Student, University of Maryland, College Park


Filming Archaeology at Wye House

The beginning of the video, showing images of the Wye House mansion and the Lloyd slave censuses. Source: Assemble Studio.

The beginning of the video, showing images of the Wye House mansion and the Lloyd slave censuses. Source: Assemble Studio.

Last summer was the last time Archaeology in Annapolis will likely excavate at Wye House. After a decade of our collective involvement and after five years of being out there myself, it’s an odd feeling to say goodbye to this place. Assemble Studio in Easton, Maryland, just outside of Wye House, finished two beautiful videos this week that summarize the archaeological work we’ve done there. One is a short, five minute “trailer,” and the other is the full, eleven minute version (see below). Along with vivid shots of the plantation’s landscape, historical photographs, and illustrations, the videos showcase Ben Skolnik, Dr. Leone, and I discussing the intellectual weight of our investigations. The final products took the combined efforts of a team of filmmakers, editors, archaeological staff, and field school students. Even before the day of filming, years of thought and work went into those eleven minutes.

I acted as a consultant to Eric Gravely and Patrick Rogan, who are part of the Assemble team, and who came out to Wye House last summer during our field school to film the footage you see in the videos. We worked with Mr. Rogan two years ago when we curated the Joint Heritage at Wye House exhibit at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. He designed the exhibit space to effectively tell the story of the plantation and our research. When we neared the end of that process, he and I discussed the possibility of launching an online exhibit of Joint Heritage, including professionally-produced videos and interactive educational tools. Although we don’t have the funding to create the full website yet, we didn’t want to waste our last opportunity to create the videos. For months leading up to the summer, Mr. Rogan and I considered the talking points of the exhibit and how to translate that to video. What are our main messages? How do we tie in a story of the archaeological process, the global Atlantic Slave Trade in general, and Wye House specifically together?

Continue Reading »


AiA in 3D: 3D Laser Scanning (and Printing!) at SERC and Wye House

We’ve been dealing with some very cool technology lately, both in the field and back on campus.  Ben Skolnik, Stefan Woehlke and I presented a paper at the Society of Historical Archaeology Annual Conference in Seattle talking about the costs and benefits one of AiA’s most recent and exciting tools — a 3D laser scanner.  During the summer of 2014, we were able to use it to scan our work in the field — in other words, the scanner spins, using millions of lasers to scan the landscape while also taking photographs.  Import this data into the computer software and what you have is an interactive re-creation of the landscape, unit, or feature in digital 3D.  With this type of data, Ben was even able to isolate one of the girts of a ruined frame structure at SERC and use a 3D printer to create a small-scale model.  Below you’ll find an adapted version of our paper, as well as a photos and videos of the process!!  After all, this is all about the visuals.


The FARO 3D-Scanner at SERC, 2014 AiA Field School (photo by B. Skolnik)

An Intro to 3D Laser Scanning in Archaeology

In recent years, companies such as FARO and CyArk have begun incorporating 3D laser scanners into field-ready packages.  Archaeologists have successfully employed these new 3D laser-scanning techniques to record sites such as Mount Rushmore and Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan.  Despite the potential benefits of using this technology, which produces quickly scanned, high-resolution images of topography and features, several limitations have slowed it from entering the archaeologist’s standard toolkit.  It exceeds the budget of many archaeological research projects and the large quantities of digital data recorded by these machines (often millions of points) present challenges in both manipulation and curation of these datasets.  Additionally, methodologies that incorporate these scanners as a part of excavation remain undeveloped.  This paper explores the use of a 3D laser scanner by Archaeology in Annapolis at several sites, and offers an evaluation of its successes and shortcomings as a tool to aid archaeological excavation and research.

Archaeologists have frequently turned to new and innovative technologies to assist in the excavation, recordation, and interpretation of sites.  Radio-carbon dating is perhaps the most profound example of a technology that has fundamentally changed the discipline; but there are many other tools and methodologies that have been developed that assist us in digging up the past.  As the cost of terrestrial LiDAR systems comes down, we expect that it will be used more and more frequently as a part of the archaeological toolkit.

Terrestrial LiDAR, also referred to as 3D laser scanning, uses active pulses of laser energy to create a detailed three-dimensional digital model of a mapped surface.  The instrument sends out a pulse of light in the [range of the spectrum] at a known angle.  That light energy travels along that specific trajectory until it encounters some physical object in its path.  Upon hitting this object, some of the energy is reflected back to the instrument platform.  The scanner records the time it took for the laser to make this round trip as well as the intensity of the energy returning.  Because we all known the speed of light (…299,792,458 meters per second, in case you need a reminder!) , we can take the time it took for the signal to return to the sensor, divide it by 2 (because it had to go there AND back), and divide by our speed to get the distance between our sensor and the point we just mapped. We can now change the angle at which our laser leaves the scanner and map another point.  If we repeat this process millions of times, we end up with a digital model of the surface we just mapped.  If you’ve ever spent time in the field, you’ll know how long it takes to map by hand, or even using a total station and prism — this process not only does all of this in a fraction of the time, but records everything, including exact distances.

Using the 3D Scanner at Wye House and SERC

Wye House

Excavations at Wye House in Talbot County demonstrate the value of using 3D scanning to record contexts in situ as they are excavated.  This deposit was located beneath what was once the entrance to a brick slave quarter on Wye Plantation.  The context, which consisted of a number of circular objects laid carefully beneath the entrance – including colored, white, aqua, or metallic artifacts that mediate the watery barrier between the living and the dead in African spirit practices.  This type of deposit must be carefully mapped and recorded prior to and during each stage of its removal – and this is where 3D scanning is a particularly valuable resource.  Using the scanner, millions of points were collected that allow for the deposit to be reconstructing digitally, preserving exact locations and measurable information that would normally take hours or days to record by hand.  Another benefit to using the 3D laser scanner at this site is the opportunity for community engagement with archaeology.  To put it bluntly, it’s a cool technology.  At Wye House, members of descendent community came out and watched as Ben gave a demonstration of the scanner, and were fascinating by how ‘high-tech’ our terrestrial excavations had become.  It regards to generating public interest and creating a visual product that can communicate the archaeology to a wide audience –point clouds are not only aesthetically interesting but interactive – 3D laser scanning holds a lot of potential.


During the 2014 field school at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Archaeology in Annapolis conducted testing around the extant remains of a late 19th century frame building, likely a tenant house for the Sellman Family Farm in Edgewater, Maryland (previously a slave-holding plantation).  Now a part of the SERC campus, the wooden frame of this structure forms a visible ruin on the landscape – albeit a delicate one, as the wood has been subjected to decades of the elements.  Many of the components of the structure, including beams, girts, a fallen chimney, and brick piers, lay relatively undisturbed where they have fallen, and present the opportunity to imagine a reconstruction of the building through their careful recordation.  Our archaeology focused of the exterior of the structure so as not to disturb the fragile ruin, with test units in the front, back, and side yards, but the 3D-laser afforded us the opportunity to record what was left of the tenant house in a level of detail that drawings, maps, and photographs wouldn’t have captured alone.  With millions of points taken and stitched together, the structure can be rotated, zoomed in on, and explored in full 3D on a computer.  Further, one of our team [Ben, I’ll give you credit for this] was able to isolate one of the architectural elements from the structure – the long girt along the east [right?] side – and import it into MeshLab, allowing us to use 3D printing technology to recreate a small scale replica of the piece.  With further work, the potentials of this type of technology in archaeology present the means to recreate high-detail and 3-dimensional models of archaeological sites at every stage of excavation, both digitally and physically.

The Costs and Benefits

There are many benefits to having a tool like this available at an archaeological site like the two described above.  One is the ability to map things quickly and accurately, as we discussed in the intro section above.  This type of technology records sites and contexts so well that you would be able to go back and look at an entire context in situ, and interact with it digitally, even after it’s been removed.  (Never forget that excavation is a destructive practice — once something is taken from the ground, it cannot be put back, which makes recording one of the most important parts of our process!)  Another benefit is the potential for community engagement — exciting technology gets people interested, and is a great way to engage people of all ages at an archaeological site.  Beyond that, the images produces are both interactive and beautiful, and provide the potential for things like 3D printing.  These are the types of products that can be used in archaeological education, museum exhibits, community outreach and online resources.

There are some drawbacks to 3D scanning as well.  The main obstacle is price — it is a very expensive piece of equipment, and not all archaeology projects can afford it.  Even our scanner, which was the entry model from FARO, was an expense that we shared with our School of Architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park.  It is important to understand that in addition to the cost of the scanner itself, there are other associated costs to keep in mind.  Computers, data storage, software licenses and training must all be factored into the budget for a 3D scanner.  Another drawback is the size of the data, which requires high processing power and a lot of space for storage.  Working with these datasets can take a lot of time, depending on how fast your computer is (and some computers can’t handle it at all!).

As the cost of terrestrial LiDAR platforms comes down, it is almost certain that they will be used more and more frequently in archaeology.  This means that archaeologists will need to develop good methods for using them in the field.  As they enter our toolkits, we will need to think more about how best to use these scanners to the benefit of archaeology and the communities we work with!



Full ‘point cloud’ at SERC (screenshot by B. Skolnik)



“This Gave Me Great Influence Over Them”

Wee Frederick Douglass, Source: Kate Beaton

Wee Frederick Douglass, Source: Kate Beaton

The following is a modified version of the talk that I co-wrote with Benjamin Skolnik and presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference earlier this month:

As historical archaeologists, we frequently claim that our work “gives voice to the voiceless.” However, our work of “giving voice” runs into the issue that the most famous voice from our site at Wye House comes from Frederick Douglass, who shares his experiences of being enslaved there as a boy. While we write our dissertations, we attempt to articulate our relationships with Douglass as a historical figure, an author, a literary character, in popular culture, and as a guide for our archaeological work. We ask, ‘How can archaeologists use the experiences of historical figures who spoke for themselves to better tell the stories of those who could not?’

The Lloyd family and their direct descendants have owned the Wye House plantation for 11 generations. One of early Maryland’s most prominent families, the Lloyds left researchers a wealth of information that spans almost all of Maryland’s history. This site consists of many, well-documented standing structures, most relating to the 18th-19th century white owning family. It is a National Historic Landmark and has a rich and thorough collection of primary documents. The Maryland State Archives have 77 boxes of digitized reels, papers, documents, and materials donated from the Lloyd Family. Since the 1960s, the discipline of historical archaeology has turned research from solely these documents and buildings to excavate in and around the homes and workspaces of the enslaved people. Archaeology in Annapolis’s excavations at Wye have been no different as we began excavating an area described by Douglass as the Long Green in 2005.

As a witness, Douglass provides several important functions for us. His writings describe an area of the plantation generally neglected by the Lloyds’ records, visitors to the plantation, and other researchers prior to Archaeology in Annapolis. He defines the boundaries of the Long Green, a term that, to the best of our knowledge, we use because of him. He describes several buildings on the Long Green. Many are gone now and many the enslaved population on the plantation occupied. We also turn to Douglass to help us answer questions concerning material culture at Wye House. As we pulled up oyster shells from around domestic areas, we thought of Douglass writing about the people he saw using oyster shells as spoons. When we interpreted a buried cache in the doorway of a slave quarter that opens immediately onto the Lloyd family cemetery, we recalled the description that Douglass gives of the cemetery. He writes “Strange sights had been seen there by some of the older slaves. Shrouded ghosts, riding on great black horses, had been seen to enter.” This allowed us to understand the absolute necessity for the cache or spirit bundle to separate the spaces of the living and the dead.

Continue Reading »


What We’ve Been Up To!!

The Fall semester has been a busy one for AiA.  Over the summer, we completed two successful field schools — one at SERC and Wye House, and another at Montpelier and Easton, MD — but a lot has happened since then.  This blog post will bring you up to speed on some of the things that have kept us busy the last few months!

AiA goes to Ireland

IMG_1692 IMG_1706 IMG_1709 P1000531

Why Ireland?

Six University of Maryland graduate students, including many from Archaeology in Annapolis, traveled to Ireland for less than a week—far too little time—as the culmination and continuation of a class we took together in January. The class was taught jointly by Dr. Mark Leone at the University of Maryland and Lee Jenkins at the University College Cork, Ireland, along with several guest lecturers whose expertise ranged everywhere from Irish prison archaeology to critical readings of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies. What sort of class covers both Irish history and Frederick Douglass and unites students from Maryland and Cork? One that explores the transatlantic connections between the Irish and African diasporas. While navigating the challenges that come with holding lectures over Skype, our sometimes lagging and pixelated conversations brought together our diverse interests and perspectives.  – Beth Pruitt

About the trip!

As a follow up to a winter term course on Frederick Douglass and Transatlantic Connections, 8 archaeologists from the University of Maryland went to Ireland for a week long exploration of the archaeology and landscapes of Ireland. In addition to spending time in Dublin and Cork, we took a day trip to Belfast where we met with archaeologist Laura McAtackney. She showed us around the city, going to a museum of Irish Republican History, on a tour of City Hall, and, of course, a Black Taxi Tour of East and West Belfast, stoping to sign the peace wall. What struck me was the physical segregation of two groups of people on the landscape which was almost impossible to miss, but also their separation culturally, which was much more subtle and difficult to see and understand. This separation could have been missed by an outsider (like us), who could have easily mistaken all these people as “residents of Belfast” or “Irish people”. This closely resembles how outsiders (archaeologists) could accidentally lump separate groups of people together in the past. – Kate Deeley

Presenting the Archaeological Findings from the Talbot County Women’s Club

Archaeology is often a very long and arduous process of gathering, organizing, and evaluating the information that comes out of the ground.  But it’s worth it!  On September 9th, Tracy Jenkins gave a presentation to the Talbot County Women’s Club on the excavation the club hosted at its historic property in Easton, Maryland, in 2013.  We were drawn there to look at free African Americans of the nineteenth century.  In the final stages of analysis this summer that the presence of two outbuildings became fully apparent.  One was a kitchen used approximately 1795-1891 where African-American cook Harriet Anderson worked in the 1870s and ’80s.  We were excited to share with the Club what we had discovered about their property, though the identity of the second building and traces of metalworking evidence across the site are still a bit of a mystery. – Tracy Jenkins

Frederick Douglass Conference

Frederick Douglass has become one of the most important figures in Maryland history. He was born and raised on properties owned by the Lloyd family where Archaeology in Annapolis has excavated for a decade. There, he escaped from slavery, but was still a slave legally. He determined he would end slavery in North America. Not only did he reach that goal, but also on the way decided to commit to ending permanent disfranchisement for the people of Ireland by making a strong alliance when he was 27 years old with Daniel O’Connell, known as “the Liberator” of Ireland. In order to bring archaeological scholarship at Wye House on Frederick Douglass and slavery into a Trans-Atlantic context, my students and I met with Douglass scholars from the Department of English at University College Cork in September of this year. Three weeks later those scholars came to College Park and visited Wye House. The joint symposium focused as much on the ways subordination from the nineteenth century have been extended into the twenty-first century as it did on the life of Douglass and the details of his accomplishments. The scholarship showed that the issues of freedom from oppression in North America and in Ireland may not be exactly the same, but techniques for removing freedom and narrowing the terms of existence continue and require the same kind of keen surveillance that Douglass constantly sought.  – Dr. Mark Leone

And that’s just the start of it — we’ve got a lot more going on this semester (and next).  Here are a couple of things that you can expect to see on the blog over the next few months:

  • A magnetometry survey session at SERC
  • The wonders of the 3D laser scanner and how we’ve been able to use it at SERC, Wye House, and Montpelier
  • More on Reynolds Tavern in Annapolis and the artifacts found there during the 1980s excavations
  • More on the trip to Ireland (including photos, and maybe even the Irish students’ perspective!)

Blacksmiths, Backfilling, and Final Thoughts

The final week of Archaeology in Annapolis for the 2014 field season has led me to reflect on the journey that those of us new to archaeological field work have faced in the last six weeks. Familiar readers of the AIA blog, mainly my own mother, have now read my fellow classmates blogs and have gotten their respective take on how each week has developed and what each exciting, or sometimes not-so-exciting, day of digging has produced. As this is the only and final blog this week my plan for this adrenaline-charged post is to do a walk through of the final week of fieldwork as it has looked from my perspective. For those of you close readers, no need to rub your eyes, you read correctly: an entire week in one post. Buckle up.

Our week begins with the intrepid, waterlogged workers of Unit 89 (Sarah, Rebecca, and myself) wondering what our next move would be after closing out our 5×5 foot unit upon hitting the water table the previous week. We soon got our answer when our fearless TA Ben Skolnik informed us that we were to be digging STPs (shovel test pits for those of you who weren’t there the first week) to determine what other buildings were on the long green at Wye House. When Ben had talked with our unit last week we had discussed the possibility of a nearby blacksmith shop further down the gravel road from the slave quarter we were currently excavating. We also discussed how the shoreline itself near Llyod Creek and Wye River had been altered by the introduction of intensive agriculture to the region. This discussion of water not only reminded me of our previously thoroughly soaked unit we had dug, but would prove to be prophetic for the STPs we were going to dig.

At first digging STP during our final week of field work and class felt almost wrong considering it had been nearly 5 weeks since we had last ruined perfectly good grass in such a manner. The greater purpose of this war on sod was to establish the possible boundaries and determine any evidence for there being a blacksmith’s shop or facilities north of the excavations of our classmates.

Continue Reading »

1 Comment

Archaeology: Its Kinda a Muddy Mystery

So I’m not going to lie, when my group (Sarah and Drew) and I began excavating test unit 89 at Wye House I thought it was going to be a quick and somewhat dirty job; now, all I can say is it has been a dirty job.

We are excavating the yard space around a presumed slave quarter (previous field schools determined where the brick piers to the quarter were, making it possible to determine how large the quarter was). Test Unit 89 sits on a downhill slope about eighteen feet northeast of where the north wall of the slave quarter would have been; Unit 89 is also about fifteen feet west of a marsh (the marsh has made dealing with the soil very interesting… and wet).

Due to its proximity to the marsh and the quarter, we thought there might only be a few artifacts here and there that might have rolled down the small hill. For the first day of excavation our prediction was correct; there was grass and mud attached to the grass and not much else. Then, it was like the gods of archaeology began to favor Unit 89.

The second level (Level B) began to show promise when we found mortar, charred wood, ceramics, glass, slate, and even part of a pipe! As we continued excavating, my group and I began to notice that there was evidence of more iron pipes and an unidentified copper-like object began to appear in this level. We were not able to take these artifacts out because they were all only visible in Level B and actually buried in Level C. (It was annoying knowing there was something there, but we couldn’t touch it for fear of ruining the chronology in which the artifacts were being excavated.) Level B proved to become more of an annoyance when we had to keep cutting through roots to bring the level down at an equal rate throughout the entire unit. Through these annoyances we were soon rewarded with Level C.

Continue Reading »


Real World Archaeology: A Student’s POV

As the previous blog post stated, last week was our first week working at Wye House, the plantation where Fredrick Douglass lived as a slave. Ever since June 3rd, we have been hard at work excavating at both SERC (The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) and at Wye House; for myself these past few weeks have been my first experience practicing real world archaeology. I can sum up my experience so far in two words: surprisingly satisfying. 

“Why is it so surprising?” you may be asking. The reason I used the word ‘surprising’ is due to how surprisingly labor intensive archaeology can be. When I pictured doing archaeology as a little girl, I always imagined I’d be wearing those outfits archaeologists and anthropologists wear including an Indiana Jones hat, a whip, and being able to find the most amazing artifacts out of sheer luck. Well, that is not the case. During our time working at SERC I wore: jeans, a t-shirt with sleeves that needed to be tucked under my jeans, and I had my hair in a tight bun while wearing a baseball cap. I wore all of this while digging (sometimes bent over to reach the soil at the best angle) and sweating under a blanket of humidity, heat, and sunlight for hours at a time.

Currently I am wearing the same type of clothes while at Wye House, due to the heat and out of respect for the family who have invited Archaeology in Annapolis to dig there. This week, and especially today, has been a rather frustrating day for my group’s unit due to what our unit is revealing to us. A ‘unit’, is the 5 5 ft square we dig down in order to be able to record the artifacts found and to map the statigraphy (the different soil layers of the earth, each depicting either human influence or a geological event). This is what our unit looks like as of July 1st.

Our Unit (Unit #88)

Our Unit (Unit #88)


Imagine digging in this hole as carefully but as quickly as possible. As the UMD graduate students tell us, it is something we as archaeological students will learn as we gain more practice. As a beginner, I can tell you it is a hard thing to do well. It becomes even more difficult when your unit reveals a level solely of large fragments of: bricks, mortar, and oyster shells. My group dug through this layer and it took roughly 2 to 3 hours to dig. The next day we had to sort, weigh, and discard (due to the sheer number of artifacts and not being able to store, analyze, and preserve these artifacts with the time they had left) as quickly and as carefully as possible before our day was over. It was a tedious process, but it was a process that needed to be done. Amazingly, the entire process was done in less than 2 hours!

Continue Reading »


SERC vs Wye House: Similarities and Differences

As a relatively new student to the discipline of archaeology, I thought it was interesting to note the differences and similarities between the excavations of the first three weeks of the University of Maryland’s Field School in Historical Archaeology and now the start of the second three weeks, each of which are being conducted at two separate and distinct sites.  Although the purpose of each excavation is similar, i.e. research into African American archaeology in both the antebellum period leading up to the Civil War and in the years following that conflict, each site presents its own unique set of archaeological challenges for the students due to the different setting and location of each site.

As noted in the previous blog, we just completed our first three weeks of excavation at a site located on the grounds of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) located near the city of Annapolis.  This site is a possible tenant house linked to an early settler family, the Sellmans, who owned a large parcel of land which served as an operating plantation for several generations prior to and after the Revolutionary War.  After several transfers of ownership, this land was eventually purchased by the Smithsonian in 2007 to become  part of the SERC.  According to previous historical research the possible tenant house may be dated to the mid-19th to early 20th century time frame, and initial (and very preliminary) field analysis of some of the artifacts recovered thus far indicate this may be the case.  We are now in our first week of work on another site located on Maryland’s Eastern shore, which is the Wye House, an historic plantation that has been in operation from the mid-17th century to the present, and has been in the same family for 11 generations. This particular site is especially noteworthy for its connection to Frederick Douglass who lived for several years as a slave on the plantation in his youth.

Continue Reading »


Welcome to Wye

Week Four. Day Two.

Last Friday we concluded our time at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). Our excavation at SERC proved to be insightful but a certain element of intrigue nonetheless remains. The excavation of units around the building proved to be rich in artifacts. Unit three, my unit, which straddled the inside and outside of the building demonstrated some level of difference between the inside and outside. A feature containing artifacts was located in the deeper levels outside the building, oyster shells and shards of glass were also found in greater quantity in the outside section of the house. Unit Two, located at the back of the house, is believed to be located over what would have been a porch. Unit One, located in the front of the building, surprised its excavators with a drastic difference in depth in their level C and feature containing oyster shells, and the most recent, and original, theory is that it is located on what would have been a garden. There still remains much to be learned from our SERC site, which Archaeology in Annapolis will hopefully address in future field seasons.

We are now at our new location; the Long Green at Wye House Plantation. Wye House is located near Easton, Maryland and was settled as a plantation in the late Seventeenth Century. Throughout its history as a prolific farm Wye House has seen many notable people, one of them being a young Frederick Douglass. Douglass lived, as a slave, at Wye House Plantation for a few years at about the age of six. Though his time at Wye Plantation was brief, it left a strong and lasting impression of life as a slave, and is described vividly and accurately in Douglass’ book, “My Bondage and My Freedom”. Mentioned in “My Bondage and My Freedom” is The Long Green, where we are currently excavating. One of our goals in excavating at the Long Green, an area were slaves worked, is to learn more about the slave’s daily lives. This includes religious practice.

Cache Found at entrance of building. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis Flickr

Cache Found at entrance of building. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis Flickr

Last year’s field school at the Long Green uncovered a Cache located at the entranceway of the building. The Cache, containing items believed, in West African Traditions, to protect one’s entryways, was left to be better excavated during this field season with new technology. This season the plan is to excavate the Cache using laser technology to scan the cache as it is excavated, thus preserving a record of the cache as it was found.

Currently, as we prepare for the laser scanning to commence, three units are excavating in the side yards of the building. So far we have yet to find much; one brick, a wire, and a nail that peculiarly resembles one of our own nails used to mark unit boundaries. The unit closest to the marsh area has encountered mud, while my unit, which is relatively distant from the marsh and directly under the afternoon sun, has had very dry dirt. I have yet to decide which one is worse, but the dry dirt might win on the account of being less messy. Three more weeks remain of field school and hopefully in that time period, we will be able to better understand not only Frederick Douglass, but the life of those who lived and worked in the Long Green and Wye House Plantation, through our excavation.