Concluding Excavations at SERC

Two field school students screening for artifacts at the SERC site.

Two field school students screening for artifacts at the SERC site.

It’s really hard to believe that tomorrow is our last day at SERC. Over the past three weeks, the field students have learned an incredible amount about not only archaeology but also the rich history that  exists at the SERC properties. During our first week at SERC, we spent most of our time digging shovel test pits (STPs). While at times this might have seemed redundant, especially when we were not finding any artifacts, completing the STPs helped us students learn that having patience is an incredibly important aspect of being an archaeologist.

Once the STPs were completed, we moved on to excavating units. For many of us, this was our first time ever excavating a unit and there was a lot to be learned. We learned much about excavating  during the first weeks, like how to hold a trowel and the best ways to properly dig using a trowel or a shovel. With help from the graduate students, we were able to catch on very quickly. And our units proved very fruitful! Almost every shovel full had artifacts in them and each unit ended up exposing different elements of our site.

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Artifacts from SERC fieldwork

We’ve started our third and final week of excavation on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) campus. We’ve opened three five-foot by five-foot units around the remnants of a late 19th century building.

Since we are trying to use material culture to answer questions about what the structure was used for and by whom, our units were strategically laid out in three places: what we believe could be a front yard, in between two brick piers of the foundation straddling the interior and exterior of the structure, and in back of the building.

My partner, Joe, and I are excavating the unit in the front of the building. We think this might be a “front yard” because the building was likely positioned toward the dirt road that connects with the main Homestead (Woodlawn).

Indian Head Penny dated 1893 similar to the one found at SERC. Photo from ebay.

Indian Head Penny dated 1893 similar to the one found at SERC. Photo from ebay.

While ceramics, glass and even nails can be good for dating a site or a specific layer within a unit, these diagnostic artifacts usually only narrow the timeline to a smaller date range. However, we found an Indian Head penny with 1893 on the front which gives us a very specific year to work with. While this may not be the earliest artifact from our unit, we will know more once the artifacts have been cleaned and cataloged in the lab.

In addition to the penny, we have screened bags full of nails and other hardware which might indicate that our unit is in an area where someone might have had a discard pile for used building materials. The presence of fence staples might indicate there was a fence implying that there was, in fact, a yard to fence off.

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The Start of AiA at SERC

We started our excavation by walking around the remaining foundation of a building and looking at what makes this a site. So, we were looking for anything that demonstrated human activity, like broken glass, nails, ceramics, bricks, altered landscape; we even looked at how the trees in the area were arranged differently too!

This piece of Aqua Glass was found in one of our STPs.

This piece of Aqua Glass was found in one of our STPs. Source: Joe Harden

Then came the fun part! We started digging; we dug Shovel Test Pits (STPs). These are one-foot by one-foot holes that help us create a range of human activity; they give us information about how far away from the building humans were and what they may have been doing, and if an STP comes back empty it still gives us a lot of information, meaning that human activity didn’t extend that far away from the building and it gives helpful information on the stratigraphy or layers of the soil. All of the STPs are carefully measured from a fixed point, called a site datum, on the site that will not move. So we chose one of the brick piers and took a compass and labeled it as 1000N and 1000E and every STP from there was measured in increments of 25 feet in any of the cardinal directions, for example, if the STP was 25 feet south of our point and 25 feet west, the STP would measure at 975N and 975E because calculations are always made in regards to north and east. A brick pier is used as a building foundation. They are used for wooden houses to raise the floor of the house off the ground so that the wood doesn’t sit on wet ground and rot. We’ve all seen a brick pier before, now we know what it’s called! The bricks are stacked and mortared together in each corner and usually one on each side of the building as well.

Milk Glass

Milk Glass found in an STP. Source: Joe Harden

In our STPs we found many different indicators of human activity: different types of glass, different types of ceramics (plates, bowls, etc.), nails, charred wood, oyster shells, even a vinyl record! Glass and ceramics differ by color and texture due to the different time periods, styles, uses, and technologies available to produce them. We found ironstone, a ceramic that is white but will have a rust color in the creases; pearlware, a ceramic that will have a bluish tint; creamware, a ceramic that is off-white and usually has yellow or green in the creases; among many others. In regards to glass, we’ve found pieces of milk glass, glass that is white through and through; manganese glass, glass that appears clear but actually has a slightly purple tint due to the chemical (manganese) used to produce it; aqua glass, glass with a noticeable light blue tint from the iron impurities in the sand used to produce it; and many more. I could list them all but this would go on for ages. A link to different types and descriptions can be found here.

Manganese Glass

Manganese Glass found in an STP. Source: Joe Harden



Shark’s Tooth found in an STP. Source: Trish Markert

Also in our STPs we’ve found this layer of sand, and as we started moving down the hill this layer of sand was found closer and closer to the surface. And then a team member found a shark’s tooth! We originally had a hypothesis that where we were digging used to be some type of water system, but the discovery of the tooth made us more sure! So this site may have been a Tidal River of the Chesapeake Bay at some point in the past!


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]


Field School in Public Archaeology

Haven’t figured out what to do with your summer yet?  Can’t seem to get enough archaeology?  Archaeology in Annapolis is pleased to announce an advanced field school in public archaeology for summer session 1, 2014.  This course is geared toward students who have already completed some training in archaeological field methods and want to work more closely with members of the public to construct meaningful interpretations of the past.

James Madison's mansion

James Madison’s mansion. Source: Montpelier Foundation

From June 2-June 21, we will be at Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Orange County, Virginia.  Tying in with excavations ongoing since the 1980s, this year’s excavation will explore the impacts of Emancipation on the African American community in Orange County.  The excavation will take place at the site of a late antebellum slave quarter that may have been reoccupied following the end of the Civil War.  This presents archaeologists with a unique opportunity to understand the effects of Emancipation at both the household and the community levels through the comparison of this site with other late antebellum and reconstruction era African American sites that have been excavated on the property.

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Metal Detecting in the Snow at Montpelier

It seemed like a great idea to spend spring break a month ago learning how to metal detect at Montpelier in Virginia. It was a good excuse to get outside, learn a new surveying technique, and get to see James Madison’s house.

And then it snowed. And not a little bit of snow, but a lot of snow. So much snow that we couldn’t even get to the site we were supposed to be surveying for two days.


Montpelier, James Madison’s Plantation home, Orange, VA

This, however, gave us plenty of time to tour Montpelier and even go on a side trip to Monticello. We did the two tours almost back to back, with a brief break in the middle for lunch. But it allowed us to do a direct comparison between the two historic houses, their tours, and their archaeology programs and interpretation. In general, the histories of people other than James Madison were incorporated better at Montpelier than the stories of people other than Thomas Jefferson were incorporated at Monticello. The interpretation at Montpelier felt more inclusive and was better at presenting a picture of the plantation as a whole.


Archaeologists Kate Deeley and Stefan Woehkle metal detecting at Montpelier. Photo courtesy of Montpelier Archaeology

Once the snow melted enough to begin the metal detecting, we bundled up and headed out to the woods. The snow that covered the site had been shoveled to the side by the archaeological interns who are employed at Montpelier. The next step for the site was to lay out a grid, creating 10 foot by 10 foot squares marked by orange flags. Once the whole grid was laid about (about 100 square feet), we began the metal detecting process. There were two professional metal detectorists, who were teaching three of us who had never detected before what to do. Metal detecting seems like a simple enough process, but no one tells you about the background noise you hear when you put that headset on. It is very loud, and hearing the difference between background noise and an actual metal object is not easy. But there is a difference in the sounds, and that was what we were looking for. We covered the 10 foot by 10 foot squares one at a time – marking all of the hits (that’s when you hear a metal object) with blue flags. Then the professional metal detectorist would come in and check our work. In general, it seemed that those of us who were learning could hear about half of the metal objects that were in each square. But we improved as the day went on. The snow continued to melt, and by the end of the day, the site was covered in blue flags and an ever-increasing amount of mud. The flags were then counted, and recorded on a site map, so we would know how many hits were in each 10 x 10 foot square.

This data will be used to determine where excavation units should be located during our advanced archaeological field school this summer.

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