Urban Annapolis and Rural Wye House

As we ended our excavations in Annapolis and moved to the very different setting at Wye House, it has been interesting to reflect on the differences between the two units on which I have worked – particularly on their stratigraphy and the artifacts they produced – and what those differences say about the sites.

Stratigraphy of Unit 24.

Stratigraphy of Unit 24. Source: Kate Deeley

The stratigraphy in Unit 24 at 9 Cornhill was at first very simple. We removed the brick layer from the patio that covered the back yard, then a layer of sand that have been used to create a level bed in which the bricks could be laid, then a few layers of fill dirt and soil. After that, we had to deal with multiple overlapping layers of coal ash that only partially covered our unit. These coal ash layers were very thin and their edges were not always clearly defined, which made it difficult to determine where one level ended and another began. A quick examination of the site revealed that the levels of coal ash were concentrated in the area of the backyard closest to the back door of the house. We concluded that the ash was likely deposited when inhabitants of the house dumped or threw the ash from their stove, and was deposited gradually over time, unlike the clearer layers of sand and fill dirt which were deposited all at once. This would explain why the coal ash layers less clearly defined than the layers above them.

Towards the end of the excavation, we uncovered a deposit of brick rubble that had been dug into subsoil along the south edge of the unit. Our previous knowledge of the site, as resources such as maps, allowed us to hypothesize that the small deposit of brick rubble might have been what was left of the southern wall of the building that had previously stood on the sites of 9 and 11 Cornhill.

Overall, the stratigraphy at our site in Annapolis consisted of many thin layers that were complicated at times, but were generally easy to understand and simple to excavate. Excavation went quickly. By the end of the second week in Annapolis, we had reached level O in Unit 24, meaning we had excavated fifteen layers! Most of the artifacts we found were small shards of glass and ceramics, nails, bricks, and a few buttons and marbles.

The stratigraphy in Unit 72 at Wye House is vastly different from that in Annapolis. We are excavating in an area that we believe is the southwest corner of a structure that was used as slave quarters. Once we removed the topmost layer of grass and sod, we were immediately greeted with confusing deposits of rubble, whole bricks, and large pieces of a broken aqua glass Coca-Cola bottle. Other units around us found similarly intimidating deposits of rubble and bricks, and one unit nearby even uncovered a fallen articulated brick wall as soon as they removed their sod level. In Unit 72, a large pile of rubble along the northern edge of the unit has been causing a lot of confusion. Its edges were difficult to define, and as we struggled to figure out where the rubble ended and how it fit under or over other layers of soil in the unit, we called it level B, and then level C, before finally decided to excavate it as a feature.

Ceramic in the wall.

Ceramic in the wall. Source: Molly Greenhouse

Our rubble deposit is fascinating, and the artifacts that we have found in it are incredible compared to the small shards we found in our unit in Annapolis. In addition to shotgun shells, large pieces of glass bottles and tumblers and ceramics, and many pieces of what we believe is a lamp globe or chimney made of milk glass, we have found several things that have allowed us to form a hypothesis about where our unit stands in relation to the building. Large amounts of brick, mortar, and plaster make it clear that our rubble deposit was likely part of a wall. Much of the glass we have found in the rubble is window glass, and we have also found a shutter hinge, which suggests that the wall was an exterior wall.

The differences in the stratigraphy and artifacts we are finding in Annapolis and at Wye House make clear the differences in archaeology of urban settings versus secluded, rural settings. Because the sites in Annapolis were constantly inhabited by many different people up until the present, the stratigraphy consisted of thin layers filled with jumbled collections of small pieces of artifacts. Sometimes these artifacts included familiar, modern things, like pieces of flimsy plastic plant markers or glass marbles. It was clear that our site in Annapolis held evidence of a long history, but it was difficult to immediately understand that history because it had moved too quickly to leave much evidence.

Our site at Wye House, in contrast, represents a site that is more defined in terms of time period, and has been preserved so that much more evidence can be found in tact. It is interesting to excavate artifacts that are so well preserved, and to be able to excavate things that were clearly parts of daily life, such as drinking tumblers and ceramics that might have been used in the kitchen. Our unit at Wye House seems to represent a clearer picture of a few lives during a specific time, rather than a larger picture of many lives over a long time.

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