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Garrett's Chance

Walking slowly, slightly hunched and peering at the ground, archaeologists look for signs that people lived on a particular piece of land. On one tract in southeastern Prince George’s County, Maryland, near the hamlet of Aquasco, we found such evidence: an early Colonial Period site in the middle of a corn field.

Garrett's Chance map
This is the story of what we found, who we think lived at the site, and why we think our findings are important.

Dove’s Nest


Dove’s Nest, the parcel of land on which this site was found, was patented (deed by Lord Baltimore in exchange for a semi-annual rent) in 1664 and remained in the hands of the Truman family until Bernard Johnson purchased it in 1686. He was a Dutch or German immigrant, naturalized in 1671. His heirs—four daughters and their spouses—divided all of his lands equally in 1702. Two of the daughters and their husbands sold their divided interests to a major local landowner, William Wilkerson, in 1711. The remaining heirs eventually sold their shares as well, although to whom and when we have not determined.

Bernard Johnson owned 350 acres between the two tracts, Dove’s Nest and Dove’s Perch. Surviving documents do not specify where Johnson, his heirs, or Wilkerson lived. Johnson appears to have used Dove’s Nest as his dwelling plantation. Wilkerson almost certainly lived elsewhere. No artifacts were recovered that might identify the occupants of the site, and there were at least two successive occupations of the site. Bernard Johnson may have been the builder and occupant of the farmstead, but his successors likely were tenants, his or those of his heirs and William Wilkerson.


The field had just been plowed and planted. From the farm road, part of the freshly plowed surface seemed darker than the surrounding soils. Careful inspection of the surface revealed a very few fragments of ceramics and glass bottles. Those fragments were identical to those recovered from other sites in the region, particularly those dating to around 1700.

Rhenish ceramics Gorge drawing
Late 17th century Rhenish stoneware fragments from a mug-like vessel called a “gorge” (reconstructed image to the right)

Daub is burned mud plaster used in construction

The field crew marked with a small flag the location of each find and noted the extent of the scatter. The crew then excavated a series of small holes, called shovel test pits, every 25 feet across the extent of the scatter and somewhat beyond. Screening the soil through wire mesh, the crew recovered more early artifacts. Not many…only 35 fragments of ceramics, glass, clay tobacco pipes, and nails from 36 holes. But they also found very small pieces of burned clay that suggested the presence of a cooking hearth beneath the surface.

A single excavation unit measuring four feet by three feet produced the same kinds of artifacts but, again, in very small numbers.

Field work
Crew members trowel the stripped surface looking for soil differences

Could we hope to learn anything from this site? After all, we just didn’t find very much. The one excavation unit, however, produced one promising bit of evidence: some discolored soil that indicated that someone at some point in the past dug a hole on that spot through the topsoil and into the clay subsoil, subsequently filling the hole with the mixed soils.Why dig holes then fill them??

To stick wooden posts in the ground. Why stick posts on the ground? In the 1600s and 1700s, wooden posts provided the foundations on which all kinds of buildings were constructed, including houses. Architectural historians and archaeologists call this building technique earthfast construction.

Because so little material was recovered from the plowed topsoil, we decided to use machinery to strip away that soil, exposing the clay subsoil. Against that graded surface, areas of disturbed soil—trash-filled pits and postholes—were visible.

We found the house and the yard...

Post holes in plan view
Features found revealing the structural footprint
Post hole profile

Plan view of a post feature                  Profile of excavated post feature

The house footprint measured 20-feet by 16.5-feet and consisted of six postholes. Note the small circle in each of the larger holes? These are imprints of the actual wooden posts that supported the house. The posts rotted in place or were pulled out of the ground, the post molds eventually filling with sediment.

Notice that each of the postholes has a shadow or halo to one side.

These are all that survive of the original postholes. At some point in time—we are not sure when—the original posts failed, probably because of termites or rot. The occupants jacked up the building, wrenched the deteriorated posts out of the ground, and dug new holes in which to set new posts before lowering the building back in place.

This is a very small house—about 330 square feet—and we can’t be certain that it was divided into rooms. Certainly if it was, there were no more than two rooms. The household probably stored some things in the loft and, perhaps, used the loft for sleeping. We know they had a cellar beneath the house, but not like any modern cellar.

Cellar pit

The excavated cellar feature

This was a small pit beneath the house and situated directly in front of the fireplace. In this pit, root vegetables—potatoes, onions, and carrots—might be stored throughout the winter, protected from freezing but kept cool.

This cellar provided a great deal of information on the site and a critical part of the story. It was filled with burned clay and burned artifacts. The clay was used to plaster a chimney that the colonists built with poles and woven branches. Often the chimney formed a distinct part of the house, supported by posts set into the ground forming a narrow addition to the main structure. No such addition was found at this site. The chimney may have been more like a modern kitchen hood supported by the building’s superstructure but not connected directly to the ground.

Casement window with cames

Reconstruction of a casement window

Among the many pieces of burned clay, the field crew recovered burned sherds of ceramic and bottle and window glass. The window glass formed long strands and drips, many of the sherds having silver streaks from the lead supports (called cames) that melted with the glass during a conflagration.

There is no doubt: the building had burned. Other object in the house were broken and warped by the fire, including a stoneware mug made in Great Britain and a wine bottle.

In the past, the building occupants had used clay quarried on-site to build, repair and—likely at one point—to rebuild the chimney. The borrow pits—once they produced the necessary clay—were backfilled with rubble from the old chimney and household trash such as fish bones, egg shells, broken ceramics and vessel glass, worn and broken tools, and other debris.

Free blown wine bottle British brown stoneware mug

A free-blown wine bottle and British brown stoneware mug

Some of the artifacts (seen to the left from top to bottom)- such as this axe, the end of a chain, and what may be a mill pick used for sharpening grind stones at a grist mill- were used in clearing the land and constructing buildings.  Two pocket knives can also be seen below.

Smoker's companion
Some of the artifacts (seen upper left to the left from top to bottom)- such as this axe, the end of a chain, and what may be a mill pick used for sharpening grind stones at a grist mill- were used in clearing the land and constructing buildings.  Two pocket knives can also be seen below them. The field crew also recovered many tobacco pipe fragments (above) and a smoker’s companion…a small metal tool used to clean, fill, and light pipes (below).


Knives White ball clay tobacco pipes
Faunal remains
Bones from past meals speak to the household’s diet: mammals, birds, and fish were part of the diet.
Tin glazed earthenware Spoon
Ceramic sherds and spoons tell us how they ate that food. The above ceramics fragments are from tin-glazed earthenware bowls and dishes imitating Chinese porcelain. The spoon to the right is part of a formal set of eating utensils now gone.
Small artifacts Furniture tacks (left grouping, upper left) suggest that at least some household members sat on upholstered furniture. And buckles (below) and decorated bone combs (left grouping, lower left) suggest something of the householders clothing and general appearance.  A thimble and a few pins (left grouping, lower right) indicate a certain level of self-sufficiency.
Unknown artifact

We even found things that we couldn’t identify (left)

What have we learned?

Precisely when the site was abandoned remains uncertain. The dwelling clearly burned in its entirety, the leaded windows destroyed along with some furnishings (furniture tacks) and utensils (at least one British stoneware mug, one earthenware plate or platter, and a wine bottle). The chimney collapsed through the burned wooden floor and into the re-dug root cellar. (The lack of a separate chimney bay may have made this building more susceptible than most to catastrophic fire.)

The burning of the structure was hinted at when the field crew first examined the surface, the soils appearing considerably darker than anywhere else in the project area. There is no evidence of subsequent occupation, to this day, of the site. The combined assemblage of artifacts suggests that the site was occupied between 1690 and the 1720s or 1730s. Colonial land records suggest that the land, called Dove’s Nest, was occupied by Bernard Johnson.

One can speculate about why this portion of Dove’s Nest was abandoned and left to agriculture. The dwelling, of course, could have been rebuilt; but clearly there were reasons for not having done so, at least at that particular location. The reason may have been systemic: an increasingly eroded, exhausted soil that had to be left fallow, a new farmstead built closer to more productive lands. Equally likely, the owners may have opted to till the land themselves or with enslaved labor, and not have renewed leases on the land. Tenant housing may have proved inconvenient sited for enslaved labor.

Despite clear evidence of a conflagration—a fire that one might assumed engulfed not just the house but its contents—relatively few artifacts were recovered from the cellar and from the site as a whole. For 21st-century Americans, it may be difficult to grasp the relative poverty of the Johnsons and of those who occupied the house after them. But there are more things—more artifacts—in the smallest room of an occupied house today than in an entire 17th-century Maryland house. Would it be hyperbole to say that there are more things in an average American house than in the combined houses of 100 Maryland Colonists? Perhaps that would not be an accurate comparison, but archaeological investigations at Dove’s Nest and other contemporary sites suggest that the comparison may be apt.

It seems clear that the Johnsons devoted much their wealth to acquiring land and buying what they needed to raise crops and husband livestock. They owned some very nice tablewares and, perhaps, clothing; but they didn’t own a lot. That they didn’t own a lot seems fairly certain; but were they poor? Did they have what they needed to sustain themselves and live with a degree of comfort? The evidence suggests that the answer to both questions should be yes. Did they not have the means to buy more furnishings or were manufactured goods from Europe simply hard to come buy? Did they choose to invest in capital goods—land, cattle, seed—rather than consumer goods that contributed little to farm production? Good questions all, and equally applicable to any site of the period, and to sites of any period.


A key suggests a locked door or bureau for privacy and protecting property