Monthly Archives: June 2013

Excavating in the St. Mary’s River

We have started into our 5th test unit today, after a disappointing previous two units. These units were very light on artifacts and ballast, but as we often say in archaeology, negative evidence is still evidence. These two nearly empty units tell us much about spatial distribution and orientation of the site. We now have a much better understanding of the limits and boundaries of how the site rests. The positive news is though, unit 5 is turning out to be very rich in ballast, with some other artifacts coming out as well. We’ve only scratched the surface of this unit, but it is very promising at providing some answers to our most fundamental research questions. We had our first small find today: a piece of glass, almost certainly within the context of the ballast, although it’s connection through some other intrusive means is possible. Before we say any more about the glass though, it needs to be examined by some of our laboratory staff for second opinions. We’ll push on tomorrow and hopefully have some additional interesting finds to report on.

One of the most common questions I receive as an underwater archaeologist, even by some terrestrial archaeologists, is just how we go about digging underwater. I thought I would take some time to discuss this. The two most common tools we use to remove sediments are airlifts or induction dredges. They both work more or less the same way, vacuuming sediments from the site. Airlifts are the simplest of these devices. An air compressor pumps air through a hose and to a PVC pipe, releasing it near the lowest end, held by a diver. The air then travels up the pipe, which is held nearly vertically, thereby creating suction. An induction dredge, which we are using due to the shallow depth of our site, pumps water at a very high speed to a connection on a pipe, shooting it to the back of the pipe and creating suction from the intake end. While it is possible to simply suck up sediment, excavation must be done very carefully to ensure that we don’t lose any data or artifacts through careless methods. To achieve this, the dredge is always held above the surface and the dredge is fed by the diver, either by hand fanning, or the method Troy Nowak demonstrates in the video below. It’s all very simple, but painstaking. Everything we do is recorded by drawing, photography, measuing, and other necessary notes, ensuring that everything we do is preserved for other researchers to retrace our steps, which is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when planning and carrying out fieldwork.


A brief guide to St. Mary’s City

As we continue our work testing the site, there is not much new to report. We spent yesterday moving our grid and silt curtain, getting ourselves ready to begin this morning. Pump issues continue to plague us, but we are moving along nonetheless, with two test pits currently underway. We are continuing to find stone ballast and colonial brick, but so far, no sign of ship structure or small datable finds.

Since there isn’t much new to report on, I thought I would take this time to write about St. Mary’s City through time. I believe I covered this in posts last year, but for our new readers, I will catch you up to speed, along with pictures I took around the city this evening.

The colonial period of St. Mary’s City begins in 1634 as a proprietary colony founded by the Calvert family after being granted a charter by King Charles I. The charter was meant for George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, but he died before his new colony could be founded. It was transferred to his son, Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore, who sent his brother Leonard to found the new colony and act as the first governor. The land was inhabited at the time by the Yaocomico Indians, a subset of the Piscataway Nation. The colonists purchased the land for them in April 1634, after a four-month journey across the Atlantic. The 127 colonists arrived in a 200+ tonne English ship called Ark, along with a smaller 42 Tonne companion vessel called Dove, which remained in the colony. A replica of the smaller vessel, called Maryland Dove is a main attraction at the museum. This new land served as the capital of the new colony of Maryland until 1695, when the proprietary charter was revoked, the Calvert family deposed, and a new Royal governor appointed by King William III.

The city was a center of commerce and government for the new colony, with a mix of people from different class, religious, and national backgrounds. Some of these people included John Lewger, an English Gentleman involved in the early politics of the colony, Robert Cole, a simple English farmer, whose property the Godiah Sprey plantation exhibit at Historic St. Mary’s City is based, Garrett Van Sweringen, a Dutch merchant, and Matthias de Sousa, a Portuguese sailor reportedly of mixed race decent who arrived on the Ark as an indentured servant and later served in the early General Assembly. One of the founding principles of the city was ‘Freedom of Conscience,’ as the Calvert family were Catholic at a time in which their religion was banned in England. As long as the colonists worshiped within a Christian faith, they were free to worship as they pleased. This caused much contention with the Virginia colony, whose members periodically raided St. Mary’s City, most notably during the English Civil War and the siege of the city known as Ingle’s Rebellion.

Tobacco was the main product of the colony, and grown by nearly all of the colonists. This crop was shipped each spring to Europe, and after the 1661 Navigation Act, could only legally be shipped to England. Maryland had a history of not following the Navigation Acts, however, resulting in several reprimands from Charles II.

As the city grew to its peak in the 1670s and 80s, several high status buildings were erected in the city. These include a brick State House and a Chapel. The town was laid out in a baroque plan, separating the chapel and the statehouse, along with a religious school and the town jail, in equidistant triangles, further demonstrating a commitment to the separation of church and state within the colony. Ironically, after the collapse of the colony, the statehouse was dismantled and the bricks were used in roughly the same location to build what is now Trinity Episcopal Church. The statehouse was reconstructed in a nearby location for the 1934 tri-centennial celebrations. The chapel was located archaeologically in the 1980s, with its foundation completely intact. Engineers were asked what would need to be done to this 350-year-old foundation to reconstruct the chapel on it, and after inspection, found that nothing needed to be done. The chapel was only recently finished being constructed, and now serves as an exhibit.

The city itself took several centuries to make a come-back. During the 19th century, a female seminary was founded here. The school grew into what is now St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public liberal arts college with around 2000 students. The state of Maryland purchased much of the land of the original colony to serve as an archaeological park and museum in the 1960s, with whom we are working now. Reconstructed buildings, exhibits, and ‘Ghost Frames’ dot the landscape, which is intended to convey the landscape of the colony during its peak.

Site is located!

We began testing an area of the river on Tuesday afternoon after completing our dredge set up. We chose an area roughly center of our grid to begin, and quickly realized that this area was culturally sterile. While disappointing, it is the nature of archaeology. Engine troubles on our pump halted work yesterday. This is the nature of underwater archaeology. We got back up running today, and decided to try a few test pits in the grid to check for ballast. After a few small test pits, similar to what terrestrial archaeologists would call ‘shovel test pits,’ we determined we were in the wrong area. After a few new measurements from our site maps, and we decided to try an area slightly down river. We measured off the points in the water and dug three test pits in these locations. Two of them contained large, dark rocks found nowhere else in the area, and also Dutch ‘sugar’ brick! We took a sample of ballast from one of the pits, which you can see in the pictures below. We have not determined a lithic type yet for these rocks, but should have one in the next few days. The unfortunate part of this is that we have to move our grid and silt curtain, but we are very excited to test this new area. Big things may be coming!


18 June, 2013 – Daily update

Some bad weather has kept us from making any significant progress today towards site testing. As such, we took care of a few dives early this morning that would be quick enough to get in before the weather, recording some necessary information for the project. Bob Jimenez and Bill Utley went in the water to record the locations of our survey grid using trilateration. This involves measuring the distance to points from two known points. It’s all simple geometry that we all forgot after high school. I snapped some photos and shot a few videos while they were working, before taking up the task of recording some descriptive data of all of the squares in our survey grid.  This will help us determine the best locations to examine, hopefully starting tomorrow, when we are able to begin dredging operations. Let’s hope tomorrow’s weather is more favourable to archaeology.

17 June, 2013 – The Silt Curtain

Today proved quite an interesting time. Firstly, we received a boat generously loaned to the project by Ben Bradlee (of Washington Post fame) and his wife, Sally Quinn. We have dubbed it ‘The Floating Back Porch,’ as it is essentially that. For our purposes, I could not imagine a better boat. Plenty of room to move about on its entirely open deck space. So many, many thanks to the Bradlee’s for their invaluable contribution to this effort!

Our main task for today was to surround the site area with a silt curtain, as per Maryland environmental requirements. We have been graciously loaned about 500 feet of floating silt curtain by the North Beach Board of Public Works. Many thanks to them for their donation! Since determining the site area yesterday, we were able to finally deploy this curtain to surround the site to ensure that no damage is done to the river’s channel or environment. The curtain was in bundles, which we had on a trailer. This was brought down to a small stretch of beach near the Dove dock, then pulled into the water using our 16 foot skiff. Imagine a 300-foot (100m) string of floating yellow curtain being gracefully pulled through the water by a small boat. After getting it to the site area, it required swimmers to position and weigh down. This was quite a site, and required a lot of swimming, but it eventually worked.

To finish off the day, Susan Langley (State Underwater Archaeologist), and Troy Nowak (State Assistant Underwater Archaeologist) came down today to deliver the dredge system that we will be using to test the site. Troy worked very hard on this brand new rig, and our project is the first to test it out. First tests had it going great! Tomorrow we will begin testing and recording the site, and hopefully we will finally see what might lie beneath this pile of rocks in a river that has our curiosity so sparked!

As you can probably gather from this post, we have a lot of outside people and organizations to thank for assisting us with their equipment, time, and hard work, and we are grateful for all of the assistance we are receiving, so thanks to everyone for their support. We’ll try to recognize everyone as it comes up!


Scott Tucker