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.

The differences between the two dig sites are noteworthy. For example, the site located at the SERC is brand new endeavor for the Maryland Field School, whereas the Wye House has been the subject of historical research and previous excavations since 2005 and can be considered a mature field site with specific research questions already developed.  This means that much of the detailed historical research,  Phase I survey work (both non-invasive and Shovel Test Pits), Phase II detailed excavations, and Phase III analysis and reporting had been completed by previous field schools on a variety of areas around the plantation.   Although we are tasked to conduct our own Phase II excavations in order to ascertain the locations of slave quarters which were known to be situated on the “Long Green”,  this effort will be a continuation of work that had been previously accomplished by the earlier field schools (Note: the Long Green was an area of the plantation that Frederick Douglas specifically identified as the location of several slave dwellings).

On the other hand, at the SERC site, we did not have the benefit of previous survey work (although some historical research had been done to locate and tentatively identify the general area of the site),  and therefore much effort was required to ascertain the extent/size of the site and determine optimum points for detailed excavations. This required several days of surface survey work with the simultaneous digging of numerous Shovel Test Pits (STP’s). The STP’s, each consisting of a small excavation to determine the presence or lack of potential historic artifacts, were placed in a specific pattern running through and surrounding the location of the presumed tenant house. The STP’s, while they could be tedious and sometimes without any productive finds, did prove valuable in two respects: we were able to get a better appreciation for the layout of the site, and they proved to be excellent tools for learning archaeology trade craft, which after all is one of the primary purposes of the field school.

Another difference between the two sites, is the relative status of the archaeological profile of each site.  The tenant house at the SERC site did present an obvious entity that was readily discernible to even the inexperienced eye. There were the remains of piers (brick foundations), a collapsed chimney, and wooden timbers and beams from the walls and roof, all of which served to provide excellent clues for the start of the survey and subsequent excavations.  However, at the Wye House, despite the extensive research and previous field school excavations, there was no obvious above ground evidence of any dwellings on the Long Green, and consequently no guarantee that the placement of our excavation units would produce the results we were looking for.  That is seems to be the nature of archaeology – the best research can often times only result in the best hunches for digging!

Finally, there are obvious similarities in the two dig sites. All the trade craft skills we learned at the SERC site, i.e. placement of the units, plotting the datum point for each unit, taking elevations and photos for each level, proper trowel technique, identification of stratigraphic layers, Munsell color charts, washing and sorting or artifacts, and last but not least – documentation, documentation, documentation, is all being put to good use at the Wye house.

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