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The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has begun stabilization of the so-called Homestead House, the brick 1841 house at the entrance to the campus. As part of the stabilization and, ultimately, restoration effort, and as part of the planning for a visitors center, SERC has initiated an archaeological study of the site. Not only will this investigation insure the preservation and interpretation of archaeological data; it will serve as the springboard for a new program at the facility: citizen science in archaeology. Volunteers are welcome to participate in a variety of activities including: archival research; archaeological survey; excavation; laboratory processing and artifact cataloguing; and public interpretations of the findings. No experience required! And for those looking for a special challenge, Project Director Jim Gibb will direct citizen scientists in original analyses of field, lab, and archival data.


We continue to wrok in between weather events. This week I hope to begin work on a new excavation unit in the field...possibly looking for a reported icehouse near the modern addition to Homestead House...and catch up on labwork. Sarah should do a dry run of her conference paper which she will formally present in early March. Our schedule, subjected to weather-induced changes, is:

Tuesday, February 5, 9:00 - 3:00 PM (lab)
Wednesday, February 6, 9:00 - 3:00 PM (lab/field)
Thursday, February 7, 9:00 - 3:00 PM (field)

Tentative Findings

February 3, 2013: Last week Sarah, Rich, and I excavated a unit on the south terrace of Homestead House. We had terminated excavation on the adjoining Unit 13 late least year because we partially exposed a feature--apparently a posthole and couldn't continue to dig down to undisturbed soil without excavating the posthole, which I wasn't prepared to do. Unit 14 encountered no such obstruction and we reached a graded subsoil at about 80 cm below the surface. The units clearly revealed that the south lawn is an artificial terrace that was cut and then filled by at least two separate dumping events separated by a hiatus during which the upper portion of the first fill deposit weathered and the posthole in Unit 13 dug and filled. We haven't processed the artifacts yet, but my impression is that the cutting and filling occurred in the 20th century.

January 27, 2013: I'm holding off on latest findings for now. Sarah will have a summary soon.

December 9, 2012: It has been several weeks since I posted new findings. The reason is simple and lies at the heart of science. We have been collecting data since August and that process continues, but we are just now conducting analyses in earmest. Sarah and Rich have extracted quantitative data from the shovel test material (soils, artifacts) and have begun the process of summarizing that data, looking for patterns, and then testing those patterns to determine if they are meaningful. Sarah will present our core findings in a paper to be presented at the Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference in Virginia Beach in early March of 2013.

Our focus at the moment is to determine if we can identify and date non-agricultural sources of eroding sediments that enter the Chesapeake Bay. Sarah and Rich appear to have identified three sources of sediment from around the Homestead House and Sarah is charting the course of those materials. Initial results place the erosional events in the second quarter of the 19th century. The map below shows the projected distribution of coal and coal ash, based on shove test data, across the site, emanating from the east side of the house.

Coal, by both count (blue contours) and weight (gold), clusters east-southeast of the Homestead House and appears to have eroded due east (right side), south, and southeast (blue arrows). The gap between the easternmost cluster and the house may be related to terrace construction which removed redeposited coal or influenced its deposition. Interestingly, coal does not cluster around the brick foundation exposed this past summer, nor in the stretch of hillside between the foundation and the redeposited material examined by Unit 11 and several shovel tests to the west (left). That suggests that coal was not used as a fuel when that building was occupied. More on the connection between the units around the foundation and Unit 11 next week.

Distribution of coal

November 18, 2012: We held a public dig day yesterday (Saturday) during which we began excavation on Unit 13 on the terrace south of Homestead House overlooking the cultivated field Rich and I recently surface collected. I say began 'began' because we went down about 40 cm through 20th-century fill, which I had anticipated (it is, after all, an artifical terrace created by cuting and filling). Under the sandy fill we encountered a finer grained fill deposit that slopes perceptibly to the south. We might have written it off as just another lens of material deposited to form the terrace except that we encountered probably more than half of what appears to be a structural posthole originating at the top of this new stratum. The apparent post mold (the void in the hole at one time occupied by a wooden post) contains gravel and Portland cement. Results await confirmation, but it appears that an earlier terrace existed on which a fence or earthfast structure had been built in the late 19th or early 20th century; that structure subsequently was removed and the terrace built up with the deposition of additional soil. This event may have coincided with the construction of the brick terrace walls in the 20th century, presumably by the Kirkpatrick-Howat family (post-1917). The pictures below show the location of the unit relative to the brick walls and the probable post hole. Needless to say, we will have to return to the unit over the next several weeks to continue our work, possibly including the excavation of a second unit to the north to more fully expose the feature.

Unit 8 Stratum 4

Unit 8 Stratum 4


November 3, 2012: Rich and I invested two days in carefully mapping artifacts on the surface of the field south of Homestead House. Farmer Billy Ford disked the field to prepare it for a new hay crop. Disking exposed brick, oyster shell, bottle glass (mostly from 18th or early 19th-century wine bottles), and ceramics. We noted one sherd of Scratch Blue White Salt-glazed stoneware (18th century) and a few bits of late 19th or early 20th-century ceramics; but the most common type appears to be American gray stoneware from the early to mid-19th century. We haven't processed the material yet, but it appears that this site, previously documented by the Anne Arundel County archaeology program and characterized as a probable trash dump for the Homestead House, is a 19th-century domestic site, possibly representing a slave house, food storage and preparation building, or combination of the two. I'll have more next week after we've processed the material and undertaken preliminary analyses.

October 21, 2012: Rich, Sarah, and I completed excavation of Unit 11, in the field opposite Homestead House. We exposed a surface, or buried topsoil, at 1.2 m/ 4 ft below grade! The sediments above that buried land surface yielded small pieces of architectural and domestic artifacts (mostly ceramics) dating to the first half of the 19th century, and probably sometime between 1820 and 1840. The charcoal-rich buried topsoil produced only a few artifacts, all of which are Potomac Creek pottery sherds dating between roughly AD 1200 and 1500. The buried deposit appears not to have been plowed, remaining exposed and unaltered by Europeans until it was blanketed by a series of sedimentation events. I'll post the profile drawing that depicts and describes those deposits next week. For now, a couple of pictures: Sarah excavating deposit above the buried topsoil; Unit 11 completed with the buried topsoil appearing as the dark deposit at the bottom of the unit; and the decorated rim sherd of a Potomac Creek pot.

Unit 8 Stratum 4


Unit 8 Stratum 4


Unit 8 Stratum 4


Unit 8 Stratum 4


October 1, 2012: Rich and I continued with the deep unit that we had started last week with Sarah. My intent here is to stratigraphically test deposits revealed by a deep shovel test pit on the edge of the natural terrace on the north side of the field opposite Homestead House. There we had encountered buried surfaces and artifats one-meter/three feet below the current grade. The artifacts recovered from these soil layers should allow us to date the sedimentation events. Preliminary evidence sugggests that the massive movement of soils occurred in the 19th century (later than I had guessed). Deposits 70 cm below grade have charcoal, coal, brick, and ceramic and glass vessel inclusions. All, however, are quite small (most under one square centimeter) and they support the hypothesis that they were washed into the area along with the sediment. The brick foundation (see below, August 18) and Homestead House to the east are the likely sources, and the charcoal raises the possibility of a strructure fire.

Unit 8 Stratum 4

September 23, 2012: Shovel testing of the field across the street from Homestead House yielded some very interesting results. Not much in the way of artifacts and those were solely from the north edge of the field and probably represent materials that eroded downhill from the house. But, along that north edge, on the brink of the terrace that overlooks the wooded drainage, a shovel test pit encountered a buried topsoil--one-meter below the current surface. That means that somebody standing on that surface today is a full three higher in elevation than a person occupying that same position sometime in the past. How far in the past remains to be seen. We'll have to excavate one or more test units in that area to sample both the buried topsoil and the overlying sediment for artifacts. This is one more important piece of evidence about how the landscape has changed over the last two or three centuries as a result of human activities--specifically those of the Sellman family.

September 16, 2012: Began, but have not finished, testing of the field across the street from Homestead House. What have we found there so far? Nothing, not a single artifact, suggesting that this landform remained undeveloped and was only cultivated throughout the historic period. No aboriginal artifacts have been recovered either, but that could be the result of erosion. We also tested an area in the field just south of the house, an area previously collected and reported to the State by the Anne Arundel County program. Our findings will significantly alter their interpretations.

September 8, 2012: Our work in the laboratory is paying off. We have caught up on washing and rebagging material, and cataloguing is moving forward. I expect we will soon be able to analyze the spatial distribution of artifacts. At this point, there are no 'findings' in that we have collected and processed data, but have not yet analyzed those data in terms of the research questions posed at the beginning of the project.

August 30, 2012: Only a brief run down as I'm ready to leave for the field in St. Mary's County. We have nearly completed testing of the site in front of Homestead House. Evidence of significant erosion and redeposition is clear. Bernie and I also tested the field edge south of the house where a site previously had been recorded and found the nature of that site to be much more complex than the discoverers originally reported. More on both stories after we have processed the material.

August 26, 2012: Completion of a unit begun last Saturday by Melia and I revealed additional evidence of a highly eroded landscape on the west side of Homestead House. Brick bats (broken, partial bricks) were found on a surface that was exposed at the time the building was dismantled. Removal of the brick and excavation revealed a very thin (< 5 cm) soil largely depleted of organic matter. Excavation of two more units closer to Contees Wharf Road revealed where some of that original surface soil had moved too. I expect much more of the soils originall on the hill around Homestead House will be found in an around the headwaters of Sellman's Creek. Also this week I worked with Dan and Alec to extend our topographic mapping across the road to the small field opposite the house. I plan to begin shovel testing the field this week.

Unit 8 Stratum 4

Figure. Stratum 4 (a buried topsoil) beneath demolition debris..

August 18, 2012: Fieldwork, conducted Thursday through Saturday, explored further the foundation and surrounding deposits. Dan put a great deal of effort into using a probe to follow the foundation, hoping to delineate the foundation without having to excavate. We were disappointed in the results, there being no apparent pattern. Excavation of a one-meter unit next to that in which the foundation was initially exposed revealed the answer to our quandry. The foundation is only three courses high and rests within a very broad, shallow trench. Dan couldn't follow the line of the foundation with a steel probe because most of the foundation is gone. Our new unit revealed that the bricks were robbed out; that is, people had recovered the bricks for use elsewhere after the building was demolished. Another unit excavated by Melia and I exposed some of the brick debris field that was left in the wake of brick robbing, or cannibalization. We should be able to delineate much of the foundation and determine approximately when it was built and destroyed, but it will take a lot more excavation and we are not prepared to do that right now. All of the artifacts point to a lifespan of the building from approximately 1800 to 1850. Recovery of ceramics, vessel glass, and bone (mostly pig) points to it having served as a dwelling.

Sarah recording foundation

Figure. Sarah recording foundation.

August 12, 2012: The Sellman's Connection Archaeological Research Project (SCARP) team completed shovel testing and mapping around Homestead House and made significant progress in washing artifacts, drafting (up to date), and data entry (also up to date). We still have several days of artifact cataloguing and more artifact processing after a fun, productive public dig day on Saturday. Not only did we recover a lot of early 19th-century artifacts, we found an intact brick foundation. Next week we will try to determine the complete footprint of the foundation by probing through the soil with a pointed steel rod (a tile probe) and map the results. We'll also map and, hopefully, shovel test the small field across the street from Homestead House and the terraces behind the house. The unit in which the brick foundation has been exposed will remain open for viewing until Thursday when we will backfill. It is right next to the white screen in the fron yard.

August 4, 2012: Most of the shovel testing from Contees Wharf Road eastward to the pool terrace behind the house has been completed and restoration work on the building begun. The field team has identified another artificial terrace, this on the south side of the house. We also identified two trash middens southeast and south of the house, both yielding lots of ceramics, vessel glass, and bone. The deposits representing one or more early 19th-century buildings along the north side of the south drive extend a short distance south of the drive. It looks like this probable 20th-century driveway cut through those deposits, partially destroying them. We'll get a look this coming Saturday when we excavate two or three units in the front yard.

July 29, 2012: We completed the base map around the Homestead House and will generate a detailed topographic map by week's end. The team also has completed shovel testing immediately around the house prior to initiation of stabilization. Shovel testing revealed a possible kitchen garden and trash midden in the rear yard and we found the remains of a heated 20th-century building on the south edge of the East Second Terrace. All of this will make more sense when we start posting maps and other photographs in two weeks. This coming week we will participate in a laser scanner demonstration (Tuesday at 8:00 AM). This machine will record a structure's exterior in three dimensions quickly and with accuracy unmatched by conventional surveying techniques. We will also shovel test the shady (yeah!) area between the south and central drives leading to the house.

July 22, 2012: So far, we have confined our efforts to shovel testing (digging test holes 35 cm/16 inches in diameter up to 50 cm/20 inches deep, 7 m or 22 ft apart) and mapping. We've recovered artifacts predating the existing mainhouse and we are mapping a series of three artificial terraces in the front yard and four in the rear. These likely are remnants of 18th-century formal gardens, a common landscape feature at the homes of the region's elite. We've found at least one house site dating to ca. 1800-1850 in the front yard, just above the entrance road to the campus.