Archaeology in Annapolis comes to SERC!

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The “Homestead House” was the home of the Sellman family for two centuries — our site is several hundred meters back, in the woods, and was likely a tenant house.
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Archaeology in Annapolis this year has the great honor of working with the Smithsonian at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC!).  This is a very exciting partnership — not only is the SERC campus home to some of the most cutting-edge environmental research in the world, but a great deal of history as well.  Also, SERC’s Citizen Science program provides opportunities to incorporate the public as volunteers in a variety of research — including archaeology.  This commitment to public engagement at SERC aligns with AiA’s own investment in public archaeology, a top priority of AiA since its beginnings over 30 years ago.  Jim Gibb’s work at Sellman’s Connection has been an outstanding example of Citizen Science in action — excavating  alongside volunteers to test the area around the 18th century house that first greets you when you drive down the winding road (at a leisurely and strictly upheld 15 MPH) and enter SERC’s campus.  We were lucky enough to get the grand tour from Jim in the spring, and thus came to choose our site for this year’s field school.  And so, we arrived last Tuesday — the Archaeology in Annapolis 2014 Field School — armed with shovels, trowels, screens, and notebooks (among many other things we use out there).

This is just the beginning — and our students themselves will be sharing their experiences on our blog throughout the season.  So for now, let’s bring you up to speed on our site and some history at SERC.

Where We Will be Excavating:

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During his mapping of Sellman’s Connection, Jim Gibb located what appears to be a late 19th century foundation in the wooded area, several hundred yards behind the Homestead House (Woodlawn).  At one point in time, a road had connected this structure to the larger house and the main road beyond it.  This can be seen in several historic topographies dating back as far as 1905, and as late as the mid-1990s.  What this structure was for has yet to be seen in any written records, but its location and size suggest it was a possible tenant house for laborers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It was mostly likely constructed using wooden planks, a building material much more ephemeral and less costly than the bricks used to construct the main house.  As we don’t know much about this structure or those who used it, archaeology will be an important tool to tell us about what this building was, what it was used for, and by whom.  Another important tool will be oral history, as many of the local community members remember a time when this building still stood and have specialized knowledge about the local history of the area.

Brief History of Sellman’s Connection

The Sellman family’s history in Maryland can be traced back to John Sellman, who arrived in America in 1658 as a twelve year old indentured servant, required to work in a single household for over a decade to earn his freedom.  Throughout his life, he worked his way from indentured servitude to owning his own plantation.  His son, William, later moved to the 360-acre plantation called Shaw’s Folly that now lies within SERC’s campus.  There, he and his wife Ann built the house that you see there today, known at SERC as the Homestead House but named Woodlawn when it was built in 1735.  This house was home to several generations of Sellmans, including General Jonathon Sellman who fought at Valley Forge with the Continental Army in 1777-78.  Several additions were added to this house over time – a wing in 1841 and another in 1979 – and it likely had several outbuildings and tenant houses for the hundreds of men and women who worked there as slaves and paid laborers through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.  According to Richard Donavin, a descendant of the Sellman family, many African American men and women remained after the Civil War as paid laborers, but little is known about their lives and the conditions they faced.[1]  Jim Gibb and many volunteers have uncovered some clues to this past, including a potential 19th century slave quarter and food preparation building in the field south of the Homestead House and a brick foundation, probably of a 19th century dwelling, in the yard west of the House.[2] 

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Map of Gibb Excavations, 2014
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The Sellman family sold the property to Yvone Kirkpatrick-Howat, an avid tree collector, in 1915.  According to local knowledge, at one time there had been a tenant house (AA-149 MHT) that had previously served as two slave quarters (later joined together).  While this is not the structure that we will be investigating, it speaks to the presence of slaves and tenants at the plantation, and could be a potentially similar building to the one we will be investigating.  This is drawn from 1987 report done by the Maryland Historic Trust, which cites Samuel Asker, a tenant farmer for Yvone Kirkpatrick-Howat at the time.[3]

Throughout the 19th century, much of the surrounding land was used by Robert Lee Forrest as the Java Dairy Farm – the land the eventually became the beginning of SERC’s campus.  The foundation that we will be excavating belonged to a building that stood throughout this time, from as early as the latter part of the 19th century well into the 20th century and the memories of many local community members.  The land containing the Sellman property was bought by the Smithsonian in 2007.[4]


Reynolds Tavern: Adventures in Site Report Writing

Reynolds Tavern, 7 Church Circle, Annapolis.

Reynolds Tavern, 7 Church Circle, Annapolis. Source:

In 1984, excavations ceased at the historic Reynolds Tavern in Annapolis.  Four years later, I was born.

You could say I solidly missed the opportunity to excavate this site, one of the first of many projects to be undertaken by Archaeology in Annapolis.  Reynolds Tavern, built by William Reynolds on Annapolis’ historic Church Circle, has served variably as a home, a tavern, a hat shop, an inn, a bank, a library, and a restaurant since its construction in 1747.  Records tell us that Reynolds made hats in his basement, ran a tavern upstairs (though intermittently), and sold slaves from his front porch.  The building has had a long history since its original owner, but Reynolds has remained its namesake; today the building operates as a restaurant of the same name, with a small inn upstairs and a popular pub in the basement.

Reynolds Tavern met its first archaeologists in Kenneth and Ronald Orr, who undertook the initial excavations in 1978.  Four years later, the project came to Archaeology in Annapolis, and three more seasons of archaeological work took place.  Notes were recorded, drawings drawn, pictures taken, artifacts cataloged.  Now thirty years later, these were my pathways to the site I would end up re-excavating, step by step, only this time armed with nothing more than post-it notes and a scanner.

When I was first invited to finish the site report for Reynolds Tavern, which had been picked up and picked at only a few times over the years, I was intrigued, but also a bit unsure of whether or not it was a task I would be able to accomplish, so far removed by time from the excavations themselves.  Not being able to associate notes with the actual experience of working on a site left me feeling blind, and more than a little lost.  However, not even a month later, what I found myself in the middle of was a mental excavation.  Peeling back layers of data, trying to associate one item with another of the same paper ‘strata’, making notes on exactly where I was finding what and trying to piece it together later.  The artifacts were just codes on a page, the units just sketches on paper, but slowly, I began to see what had happened thirty years ago.  Despite my initial trepidation (and some admittedly mind-scattering notes from the 80s), the Reynolds Tavern site report has come together, piece by piece, and proved to be both an adventure and a truly gratifying learning experience. (Though I’ll take the field any day, but wouldn’t we all?)

But this adventure in site-report-writing has not been without its exciting moments.  There’s much more to this story: there are the actual finds of the 1980s excavations (the well, the cobblestone road, the African bundles, among others), the exhibit-to-be in the basement of the present day Reynolds Tavern, the discovery of the artifacts (again!) in the secret, cavelike room beneath Woods Hall, and as of today, the hundreds of photographic slides pulled from archives to be digitized for the first time.  But these are other blog posts, for other weeks!  Until next time.