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The Roberts Site

In anticipation of road construction, Kate Dinnel (now of J. Patterson Park & Museum) conducted an archaeological survey in 1994 finding scant evidence of a historic period site on the Roberts Farm, a 26-acre field north of Prince Frederick, Maryland. Thirteen shovel test pits yielded a burned piece of glass and several brick fragments. Not much to go on…not even a clear indication of what the site dated to.

Location

 

Site
A westward view of the project area

In 2004, Calvert County—having decided to build a bypass along the route surveyed in 1994—contracted Gibb Archaeological Consulting to conduct additional testing to determine whether the site was historically significant. An additional 53 shovel test pits, each 1.5-ft in diameter and a foot or more deep, excavated at 25 ft intervals across the field, yielded a paltry 11 artifacts, including several sherds of Colonial Period ceramics and glass, and a handwrought nail. Five excavation units measuring 5 ft on a side, and a sixth measuring only 2.5 ft by 2.5 ft, produced 93 artifacts…all 18th century, but a lot of digging for so few objects. Still not much to go on, but certainly an occupation dating to the first half of the 18th century, a time when land records indicate that the Skinner family owned the land.

Chance and Borders Enlarged Tracts

In the English tradition, many Maryland planters named their holdings. The Skinner family called their plantations Chance and Borders, later Borders Enlarged, and it is on these tracts that the Roberts site is situated. Robert Skinner acquired Border, or Borders, from Lord Baltimore in 1680 (see below). His heirs retained ownership into the first quarter of the 19th century.

Partial chain of title for the Roberts farm

TRACT GRANTOR GRANTEE ACREAGE DATE INSTRUMENT
Borders Enlarged Alexdr Skinner Elizth Skinner 3/12/1810 1/389
Borders Enlarged Benj Skinner Alexdr & Elizth Skinner Will
Borders Enlarged Wm Skinner Wm, Jos, Jas, & Leonard Skinner; ¼-interests 310 Rent Roll #20
Borders Enlarged Lord Baltimore Wm Skinner 310 4/12/1720 Pat IL#A/366
Border Lord Baltimore Robert Skinner 50 1680 Pat 20/356
Chance Lord Baltimore Geo Bussey 50 1681  
Chance Lord Baltimore Thomas Tinsley 100 1679 Pat 20/355

The Proprietary rent rolls (everyone paid Lord Baltimore a semi-annual rent until he began selling land outright in the 1750s) list William Skinner as early as 1704, and subsequently his sons, Joseph, James, William, and Leonard held one-quarter interests, or 77.5-acre portions of the 310 acre tract. Unfortunately, there is little written evidence of the Skinner family’s life in central Calvert County during the early 18th century. All we are likely to know of them, and of many of their neighbors, necessarily will come from archaeological traces of their homes, their belongings, and of the refuse they discarded.

Intensive Study

Gradal
A Gradall exposed several features beneath topsoil

Very few traces of the Skinner family’s occupation survived in the plowed soils of the Roberts farm; however, one of the shovel test pits encountered Colonial Period artifacts and soils richer in organics than the surrounding soil matrix. Two 5 ft by 5 ft excavation units revealed what the shovel test only hinted at: one quadrant of what appeared to be a large, circular pit with 250-year-old refuse. Since the plowed soils offered little of consequence—there just wasn’t that much material present, probably because erosion removed material from the site—we had a machine strip away six to eight inches of topsoil, exposing the clayey subsoil. To our surprise, the pit that was partially uncovered by the excavation units proved to be much larger than anticipated…26 ft in diameter. And it wasn’t alone: against the yellowish brown clay loam subsoil the field crew could see dozens of features, mostly postholes that had been filled with mixed soils decades, possibly centuries, ago.

Pit feature
Several post holes (shown with black plastic) enclose the large pit feature, which has 26 ft. diameter

We had discovered one of the reasons why we recovered so few artifacts during the earlier phases of study: the site consisted largely of a fenced pen measuring 90 ft on a side with a posthole every nine or ten feet and a pair of post on the west side representing a gate 4 ft wide. Within the pen were three features: the large circular pit, an 8 ft by 4 ft rectangular pit in the northeast corner of the enclosure, and a 5 ft by 5 ft pit in the northwest corner. Each proved to be a foot to a foot and a half deep. The square pit cut through one posthole in an unexplained fifth line of postholes that follows the western fenceline. The pit proved to have deposits dating to the second quarter of the 18th century. Since that pit was dug after the fenceline was built—the pit cut through the existing posthole—the fence also dates no later than the second quarter of the 18th century.

Site map

Soil stripping revealed a large pit (southwestern quadrant) and a root cellar (northwestern corner) enclosed by a fence


Bottle seal
Real piece
A bottle seal reading "I-S" is likely that of James Skinner (above) and the obverse/reverse sides of a Spanish two-reale piece cut in half (below)

The square pit likely represents the lower portion of a root cellar truncated by plowing and soil erosion. It produced a number of ceramic sherds, bottle glass, mammal and fish bone, oyster shell, and a Spanish two-reale coin dated 1719. The coin had been clipped, cut in half to make change (a common practice when coins were made of gold and silver and, therefore, had intrinsic value). The large circular pit yielded similar materials, while the rectangular pit in the northeast corner of the site produced not a single object. Perhaps the most interesting object recovered from the large circular pit is a circular piece of glass bearing the initials IS. This bottle seal was welded onto the body of a wine bottle at one time, the bottle one of a number that was commissioned by someone of means. (During the Colonial Period, tavern owners and wealthy colonists typically bought wine in wooden barrels and filled bottles from the barrels as needed. The bottles were bought in bulk or custom made and shipped, we think, empty.) The I might represent a Latinate J, hence the IS monogram might be that of Joseph or James Skinner.

In the southwest corner of the site, just south of the fenceline, plowzone stripping revealed several postholes with burned clay within, indicating that they probably supported posts that constituted parts of a fireplace and chimney. Constructed of woven sticks (wattle) and puddled clay (daub), these daub-filled holes are all that remains of the fireplace. And not much at that…the postholes were only two inches deep.

Originally they were probably 1.5 to 2.5 ft deep: plowing nearly destroyed them as it had the other postholes that contained the posts upon which the dwelling was built. A similar arrangement of posts probably existed around the root cellar, but those too had been destroyed by plowing and erosion.

Iberian rim Excavation
A late 17th-early 18th century Iberian jar rim (above); Excavation of the root cellar (root)

The functions of the fenced pen and the fifth fence remain uncertain. Fences usually serve one of two purposes: keeping animals out of an area, or keeping them in. Did the fence enclose a garden? Or did it pen sheep and other livestock? And did the large rectangular pit from which the field crew recovered no artifacts serve an agricultural function that simply left no trace of artifacts? Were there two dwellings and was either one occupied by the Skinners, their servants, slaves, or tenants?

Pipes Buckles
Ceramics

Archaeological excavation of the Roberts site revealed a previously undocumented type of site in the region—a fenced enclosure—along with the scant remains of two dwellings and two pit features of uncertain function. A small collection of artifacts, of English and German manufacture, and bone—representing rockfish, pig, sheep, deer, and cattle—was recovered, along with the burned remains of corn and wheat. Much information remains to be wrung from this peculiar little site, and much of that will become important as similar and different kinds of sites from the same period are excavated in the area.

Whatever else archaeologists learn from this site, however, one lesson cannot be forgotten: this unusual and potentially very important site, in terms of what it ultimately might tell us about the history of Calvert County and Southern Maryland, was found through an archaeological survey that yielded little evidence of a site, but evidence the survey yielded and both the State and County governments recognized the potential and insured that the site did not fall before the bulldozer.

Bottle base
The base of a 17th-18th century wine bottle at the Roberts Site

 

Also: Read about the Roberts Site in the Calvert Independent! Just click here!

 

 

 
 

 

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