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Stalking Early Colonial Tidewater Sites:
Elusive Low-Denisty Sites in the Chesapeake Region


We encourage you to read and use all information in this paper, that is why we have made it free and available to the public (i.e. go for it!) It was presented at the conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology in Sacremento, California on January 13, 2006

Field scatter—a phrase often used in field archaeology, but seldom defined clearly—easily dismisses that which should be explained, and perhaps explored. Field crews traverse the landscape, surface collecting and shovel testing, recovering artifacts and recording locations. Ultimately, the principal investigator attributes some finds to sites and the rest to, well…non-sites. What are these stray bits…what do they represent?

Erosion explains some instances, although it presupposes a nearby site at higher elevation. The prospects of finding lost objects on other than deflated surfaces are dim, and, in any case, most of us would be pressed to imagine a circumstance where someone lost a common nail, a brick fragment, or a ceramic sherd.


The solution in many cases is simple enough, if at once unnerving and exciting: Unnerving because many isolated historic artifacts encountered in the field represent sites that are difficult to define and to justify investing resources, and because the tools that we are accustomed to bringing to historic sites may be inappropriate; exciting, because these may be single component sites, or short term occupations, better suited to answering historical and processual questions than the rich palimpsests ordinarily attracting scholarly attention and research dollars.

To illustrate this point, let’s briefly review three early historic sites examined in the Chesapeake region in 2004. They are not identical or even particularly similar.

Idlewild Farm (18AN1257)

Forty-nine shovel tests at 65-ft intervals identified a mid- to late 19th century domestic site on a knoll, and a scatter of five possible Colonial Period artifacts on the level ground to the north: two ball clay pipestems with 6/64th-inch bores, a French-style gunflint, one lead shot, one handwrought nail, and a rim sherd of what appears to be North Devonshire sgrafitto.

Idlewilde Farm Shovel-test Finds
Ball clay tobacco pipe (6/64") 2
Gunflint 1
Handwrought Nail 1
Lead Shot 1
Total 5
Site map

Forty-three additional units at 25-ft intervals on the flat produced six more Colonial Period artifacts:

The shovel tests suggested a very low-density site for which intensive plowzone sampling would not be cost-effective. Limited mechanical stripping of the plowzone exposed three pits and several possible postholes, providing evidence of intact deposits and the approximate core of the site.

Stripped area

Artifacts collected from the spoil and exposed surfaces were few, but included: a rim-sherd of North Devon sgrafitto pan; a rim-sherd of a British brown mug; and a handwrought nail. A small, thin sherd of green vessel glass and one ball-clay pipestem with a 7/64ths-inch diameter bore were collected from the top of an ill-defined posthole. Additional plowzone stripping is necessary to locate the earthfast dwelling footprint that almost certainly survives in the vicinity.

The Roberts site (18CV350)

Kate Dinnel and others identified the Roberts site in 1995 based on the recovery of three artifacts and some brick rubble from 13 shovel tests excavated at 65-ft intervals. In 2004 my crew and I excavated 53 shovel tests at 25 ft intervals at the Roberts site, avoiding, for the most part, the steeper slopes (Figure 2, please scroll through the gallery below). Those units produced 11 Colonial Period artifacts and traces of brick or burned daub.

Roberts Site Shovel-test Finds

Earthenware, plain redware 2
Earthenware, slipped redware 1
Earthenware, tin-glazed 1
Stoneware, British brown 2
Stoneware, Westerwald 1
Stoneware, White salt-glazed 1
Vessel glass, vial 1
Vessel glass, wine bottle 1
Nail, Handwrought 1



Roberts Site Unit Finds
Button, Glass inset
Earthenware, creamware
Earthenware, plain redware
Earthenware, Slipped redware
Earthenware, Tin-glazed
Porcelain, Chinese
Stoneware, British brown
Stoneware, Rhenish gray/ Westerwald
Stoneware, White salt-glazed
Vessel glass, Wine bottle
Vessel glass, table
Vessel glass, vial
Tobacco pipe, ball clay
Nail, indeterminate
Window glass

Six units, each measuring 5 ft by 5 ft, produced a total of 93 Colonial Period artifacts, an average of 15 each. One unit encountered part of a large feature.

Mechanical stripping of the site revealed a fenced enclosure measuring approximately 90 ft on a side (Fig. 4). Inside and adjacent were three large features and the severely truncated remains of four postholes with burned daub inclusions, suggesting an earthfast house, virtually destroyed by plowing and erosion.

Features 40 and 41 produced artifacts dating to the first quarter of the 18th century, including a wine bottle seal (Fig. 9) from Feature 40, a 26-ft diameter pit (Fig. 10). Feature 41, a 5 ft by 5 ft root cellar, yielded a clipped Spanish two-reale coin (Fig. 13), as well as rockfish, deer, sheep, cow, pig, and chicken bones, and carbonized wheat, corn, peas, beans and squash remains. Both features produced fragments of ball clay tobacco pipes typical of the early 18th century. Feature 41 cut through posthole Feature 19, establishing an early 18th century date for the fenced enclosure.

Garrett’s Chance (18PG703)

Garrett’s Chance #2 was visible as a patch of dark soil on top of a small rise, heavily eroded to the south and relatively level to the north (please scroll through the gallery below). Several sherds of Rhenish blue/gray stoneware and wine bottle glass were collected from the plowed surface (figures 9 and 10), but repeated passes yielded very few objects. Thirty-six shovel tests excavated at 20-ft intervals produced 31 Colonial Period artifacts and traces of brick or burned daub from 16 units.

Garretts Chance Finds
Slipped redware 1
Stoneware, British brown 1
Stoneware, Rhenish gray 1
Stoneware, White salt-glazed 1
Vessel glass, wine bottle 2
Vessel glass, indeterminate 3
Tobacco pipe, ball clay 9
Button 1
Brick, common red 1
Daub 16
Nail, indeterminate 8
Window glass 3
Total 48
Garretts Chance 3x4ft. Unit Finds
Vessel glass, table 1
Vessel glass, wine bottle 4
Vessel glass, indeterminate 3
Tobacco Pipe, ball clay 3
Window glass 1
Daub 63
Brick, common red 1
Nail, handwrought 1
Nail, indeterminate 8
Lead 1
Total 86

A 3 ft by 4 ft excavation unit at the location of one shovel test that produced several objects and exposed a possible feature further exposed the feature, but yielded a paltry 22 Colonial Period artifacts and 64 pieces of burned daub.

1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 . 1

Click on any thumbnail to enlarge below, using arrows to advance as necessary


Figure 1~ Site after plowzone stripping

Mechanical stripping (Figure 6) exposed an earthfast dwelling with six postholes and molds, all replacements, a root cellar filled with burned daub and ample evidence that the structure had burned after it had been rebuilt (Figures 9 and 10), and several borrow pits with late 17th and early 18th century domestic refuse, burned daub, and unburned daub.


Although these sites, as presented, are incrementally richer, all were identified by few artifacts. Intensive subsurface testing at Roberts and Idlewild Farm yielded additional materials, but the finds were few in number and temporally ambiguous. Garrett’s Chance was significantly richer, if relatively artifact-poor, and it was possible to approximate the date of its occupation on the basis of intensive surface collecting. The collections, however, did not adequately define the extent of the site because of severe erosion. Intensive plowzone sampling was unsuited in all three cases because of the paucity of materials and, in the case of the Roberts site, because of the exceptional nature of the site: a fenced enclosure with traces of a largely eroded earthfast dwelling. Mechanical stripping was essential for defining the extents of both Roberts and Garrett’s Chance, and additional mechanical stripping will be necessary to more fully define Idlewild Farm. It is not my intention to dismiss the power of plowzone sampling for investigating Colonial Period domestic sites; on the contrary, under certain conditions, this is an indispensable approach to understanding site structure. But, it requires relatively rich plowzone deposits that are not simply plowed subsurface features, and the subject sites must be largely free of pattern-altering, or destroying, erosion.

References Cited

Dinnel, Katherine J., Bernard Slaughter, Joseph Herbert, and Stephen W. Tull
1996 Phase I Archeological Survey, Widening of Maryland Route 2/4 and the Collector–Distributor System for Maryland Route 2/4, in the Vicinity of Prince Frederick, Calvert County, Maryland. Maryland State Highway Administration, Archeological Report Number 141. Contract CL413–101–570.

Gibb, James G.
2005 Phase I Survey of a Portion of the Proposed Prince Frederick Boulevard, Phase II Archaeological Site Examination, and Phase III Impact Mitigation at the Roberts Site (18CV350), Prince Frederick, Calvert County, Maryland. Gibb Archaeological Consulting, Annapolis, Maryland. To be submitted to Calvert County Department of Public Works, Prince Frederick, Maryland.

2004a Phase I Archaeological Survey of Portions of Idlewild Farm, Davidsonville Road, Davidsonville, Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Subdivision No. 03-037. Andrew Garte & Associates, Shady Side, Maryland. Submitted to Caruso Homes, Crofton, Maryland.

2004b A Phase I Intensive Archaeological Survey of the Stanwick Farm, Aquasco, Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Phase II/III investigations of Garrett’s Chance #2 (18PR703) and Garrett’s Chance #3 (18PR704). Andrew Garte & Associates, Shady Side, Maryland. Submitted to LanDesign, Bowie, Maryland.