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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Archaeologies of Conflicting Ideologies: Frederick Douglass, Democracy, and Combating Racism

The following post comes from a paper I presented at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference held in Quebec City, Canada this January.  Continue below for the body of the presentation.

Frederick Douglass Statue. Talbot County Courthouse, Easton, Maryland. Photograph by the author.

Archaeologists working at Wye House in Talbot County, Maryland have taken advantage of the historical descriptions provided by 19th century writer, orator, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved there briefly as a child and describes his experiences in all of his autobiographies.  These textual accounts allow the archaeologist to see the plantation landscape and enslaved African American culture through the eyes of one who was enslaved there himself.  Such a perspective is extremely rare in the historical record and have greatly aided archaeological investigations.  Not only have we turned to Douglass for help in locating and describing the structures we excavate on his former plantation, but we have also turned to his writings and his work to help us get inside American slavery, race and racism, colonialism, and ideology.

During the American Civil War, Douglass was a vocal supporter of the US Colored Troops, and actively worked to

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Intersections of Place, Landscape, and Spirit at Wye House

This is a shortened version of my paper for the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology annual conference, delivered at the beginning of January. I contributed to the second part of an exciting session called The Intersecting Plantation Landscape. You will be able to find my full presentation, and those of the other archaeologists in the session at our website, created by Terry Brock.

West side of the Wye House garden (1904).

West side of the Wye House garden (1904).

The sandy loam of the tidal shorelines of Talbot County, Maryland made for rich planting soil. Edward Lloyd I came to Talbot County in the mid seventeenth-century, carrying the name of Wye with him as an immigrant from Wales. His slaves built the Wye House Plantation along the Wye River which gave the Lloyds access to the Chesapeake Bay and all of the international trading routes it offered to a tobacco merchant. Within this perspective of the landscape are his story and the stories of the generations of Edward Lloyds that followed him. There is the way he saw his land, the formal garden paths, the plants, his view of the nature that surrounded him, and the place that he had created for himself. But his story is far from the only story, and he was not the only one creating places or bringing aspects of a homeland to the plantation. There were hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children at Wye House and several other properties owned by the Lloyds throughout the county.

The most famous was Frederick Douglass the abolitionist, who was held in bondage at Wye House as a child in the early nineteenth century. After his escape, he gave voice to his experience of slavery and oppression in his speeches and autobiographies. These are helpful to an extent, but for those who could not escape or write or speak, we have to turn to the records kept by the Lloyds, the archaeology of the plantation, and archaeobotany to illuminate their lives and histories.

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Pardon the Interruption

The AiA Blog is back after a six-month struggle thanks to the work of the University of Maryland IT Department. We’ll be posting a back-log of students’ posts from the summer and working to get the blog up-to-date with everything we are doing now. It will take a little bit longer to get it back to looking like it did. The design changes are temporary until I can restore our custom theme.

All of us at Archaeology in Annapolis will be traveling to Quebec City this week for the 2014 annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference, so you can expect to see the research that we will be presenting there soon. Thank you for reading, and we apologize for our unintended absence!

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Getting to Wye House

I’ve been working at Wye House for three years now.  One impression that myself and many of our students are left with is its isolation and remoteness.  In the field school van, it takes more than an hour and a half to get to Wye House.  We have to cross the bay, drive down seemingly endless shady country roads, and frequently get stuck in traffic.  Some days, it seems like Wye House is the farthest possible site at which we could be working.

As far away as Wye House might seem on hot summer days, it’s much more connected than one might think.  We’re so used to thinking about distance in terms of lines on a roadmap that we sometimes forget that there are other ways of moving through space and other ways of determining connectedness.







This is a detail from a photograph of Wye House from the early 1920s or 1930s.  If you look closely, you can see the plantation’s wharf as well as the hull of a ship.  In My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass writes:

In the river, a short distance from the shore, lying quietly at anchor, with her small boat dancing at her stern, was a large sloop–the Sally Lloyd; called by that name in honor of a favorite daughter of the colonel. The sloop and the mill were wondrous things, full of thoughts and ideas. A child cannot well look at such objects without thinking.

Douglass continues:

“I had the strongest desire to see Baltimore. My cousin Tom, a boy two or three years older than I, had been there, and, though not fluent in speech (he stuttered immoderately), he had inspired me with that desire by his eloquent descriptions of the place. Tom was sometimes cabin-boy on board the sloop “Sally Lloyd” (which Capt. Thomas Auld commanded), and when he came home from Baltimore he was always a sort of hero amongst us, at least till his trip to Baltimore was forgotten. I could never tell him anything, or point out anything that struck me as beautiful or powerful, but that he had seen something in Baltimore far surpassing it. Even the “great house,” with all its pictures within and pillars without, he had the hardihood to say, “was nothing to Baltimore.” He bought a trumpet (worth sixpence) and brought it home; told what he had seen in the windows of the stores; that he had heard shooting-crackers, and seen soldiers; that he had seen a steamboat, and that they were ships in Baltimore that could carry four such sloops as the “Sally Lloyd.””

Is this ship the Sally Lloyd?  In his writings, Douglass makes it clear that this ship (and others like it) is the link between the plantation and the outside world.  Through this ship, a new avenue of transportation and connectedness opens.  While Wye House is seemingly inaccessible by road, it is but a short trip by water to the capital, Annapolis, or the shipping port, Baltimore.  Prior to the construction of the Interstate Highway System (1956), the Bay Bridge (1952), and the invention of the Model T (1908), archaeologists departing from the University of Maryland would almost certainly walk down the road to the port town of Bladensburg, board a ship, and sail down the Anacostia River to the Potomac, across the Chesapeake Bay, and onto the dock at Wye House.  The alternative would involve a LONG walk up and around the Chesapeake Bay.

Returning to the aerial photograph of Wye House suggests another way to get to Wye House: by air.  As remote as Wye House feels, we are frequently greeted by the sounds of powered flight.  Overhead, we’ve seen news helicopters, Coast Guard helicopters, private jets, small turboprop planes, home-made ultra-light aircraft.  We are also treated to daily flights of A-10 Thunderbolts, probably on training flights out of Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, DC.  Nicknamed the Warthog, the A-10 was designed to engage enemy vehicles and tanks with depleted uranium armor-piercing shells.  It flies low, slow, and loud and their commanding presence demands that we look up from our units and realize that we’re still connected to the outside world, even here at Wye House on the Eastern Shore.