Category Archives: Fieldwork 2013

North Devon

Last week I travelled to the UK (from my new home in Germany!) to explore North Devon, the region which I believe the ship site in Maryland to have come from. Those who have read the previous posts will know that we found very little material on the site, so our general approach to the analysis is to extract every last bit of information we can from each artefact. I was lead to North Devon, partly because of the single ceramic sherd found on the site, originating in North Devon, and also as I had found a geological feature along the N. Devon coastline with  cobbles which appeared to match the ballast from the Maryland site. My general understanding of this feature was that it was very unique, based on what I was able to gather from internet searches while back in North America.

My goals for my time in North Devon were to examine the Northam Burrows Pebble Ridge, visit the museum of Barnstaple, and search the cities of Barnstaple and Bideford for old buildings with oddly sized bricks (approx.  1.75x5x10 inches), as found on our site. I was staying in the seaside village of Westward Ho! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), directly along the pebble ridge. It is truly an interesting feature. It is literally the edge of a glacier, one that once connected England to mainland Europe prior to the end of the Pleistocene. Walking around, I became quite certain that I was in the right region. The stones were geomorphologically identical to the ballast from the St. Mary’s ship. Unfortunately though, the stones are not quite as unique as I had thought. They could have come from a large number of shoreline sites along the Bristol Channel. The limestone and chalk stones are also interesting. There is no limestone on the English side of the Bristol Channel. There is plenty of it though on the Welsh shore of the Channel, meaning that the ship had likely visited Wales. Lime was imported to N. Devon though, which was used as a tempering agent in the ceramics produced in Barnstaple and Bideford.

The next day I got on the bus to Barnstaple to visit the Museum of North Devon to have a look at the ceramics on display. Of course, the Sgraffito ware was the main focus, as this was the type found on the site. The museum was small, but well laid out. They put a great deal of focus on the pottery produced in the area, which was exactly what I was hoping for. North Devon produced several utilitarian wares, known in the archaeological community through equally utilitarian names: North Devon Gravel Tempered, and North Devon Gravel Free. But the Sgraffito and Trail decorated slipwares are of a much finer, high status type, and were very popular in England and its colonial holdings. We find a fair amount of all types of ceramics from North Devon in the Chesapeake, so it was exciting to visit the museum and see some complete examples, which are rare in the ‘plow zone’ archaeology that largely defines the practice in Maryland and Virginia.  At the end of the museum visit, I asked at the front desk if there was anyone I could talk to about stylistic dating of sgraffito wares, not expecting much from such a small museum. To my surprise, the museums development manager for Barnstaple, Alison Mills, another archaeologist, came down and greeted me, and let me explore the collections above. They have a wide range of ceramics from the various kiln sites of Barnstaple, which was absolutely fascinating for me. A normal collection of ceramics from an archaeological site is one of finished, salable products. Being that these are from kiln sites, I was viewing instead a very different type of collection. This was largely comprised of ceramics that were not good enough for sale, often over-fired, or defective in some way, causing them to be discarded before sale. Sadly, throughout the entire collection of sgraffito, I could not find an analogue for the sherd from the ship site. There is hope though, as I am now in contact with the leading expert on this type. Hopefully I will have an update in the coming days.

The final day was spend walking around Bideford and Barnstaple observing the local sites, and hoping to find some old brick architecture. There really wasn’t much around. I stopped in Bideford first, and walked around finding very few old brick buildings. One place that caught my eye, was a  pub called ‘The Custom’s House.’ I decided to go in for a coffee, and to get out of the rain. It was a rather quaint little pub with more than a little maritime charm. This building was in fact, the customs house for the city, built sometime in the late 17th-century, and used as such until sometime in the mid-19th century (English Heritage). The bar was made to look like the hull of a wooden ship, which I rather appreciated.

Moving onward to Barnstaple, I wanted to walk around Tuly Street, once the centre of ceramic production for the city. To my disappointment, the street is now home to car parks and grocery chains. Heading back to the High Street I came across the only potentially 17th-century building I had yet observed. English Heritage places this building at an early to mid 17th-century date. Of course it is now a store, but it is constructed of odd and irregular sized handmade bricks, very thick mortar joins, and laid out in English Bond, meaning one row of stretchers (laid out lengthwise) and one row of headers (laid out width-wise). Interestingly, many of the bricks were rather thin, at around 1.75 inches, and rather long, at around 10 inches. This is quite similar to the the bricks found on the Maryland ship site, which were almost all only around 1.75 inches thick. While this doesn’t say much, it can be said that analogous bricks are found in England, and particularly in North Devon. I haven’t spent enough time observing old brick work in other parts of England to say that this is rare, but bricks of this size certainly are for the New World.

All in all, this was a very informative trip. I certainly gained a lot of insights into this historic area, the role it played in the tobacco trade, and its connection with the Chesapeake region. Aside from that, it is simply a hugely interesting area. The geology is something which I have never before encountered and the historic period ceramics are fascinating. The inter-tidal area of the river was something new and interesting for me as well. This area experiences the second highest tidal range in the world, and at low tide the beach extends about 300 meters from the pebble ridge. At high tide, the ridge is partially submerged. Watching the tide come in was a real treat. To finish this post, I’ll leave you with a few of the more scenic photographs from the trip. Thanks for reading!



WHAG TV Coverage

Hagerstown NBC Affiliate WHAG covered our story today!

Full coverage:

Announcement of Findings

Since the first article is now out, I will take this time to discuss some of our findings from the project this summer!

First, to keep you from having to go back through the older posts, a quick description of the work we performed this year.

The site was known as an oval-shaped distribution of probable stone ballast, 50ft. in length, in the St. Mary’s River adjacent to the town center area of the 17th-century settlement at St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Previous finds on site included Dutch red bricks and two large bore pipestems, along with cobblestones described as ‘European’ in origin. Our work was intended to relocate the site, and test several areas to determine a date, origin, and general nature of the site.

We excavated 6 1x1m test units on and around the site, with three units landing directly on the feature, which was buried under the riverine sediments. From the units on the site, we found very heavy concentrations of cobbles, approximately 30cm thick, and stacked in a way that suggested intentional order – larger cobbles on top – which would have helped hold the stones smaller stones in place keeping the ballast from shifting. The sheer quantity of the stones and the size and shape of the distribution, along with the seemingly intentional order of them, indicate that the site is the remains of a ship rather than a dump of ballast.

Several small finds within the ballast have helped narrow the date. The two pipestems mentioned above would indicate a date to the second half of the 17th century, if they are in fact associated with the site. Our work this summer found only one datable artifact. This was a sherd of a North Devon Sgraffito Jug, the decoration of which being highly characteristic of 17th century manufacture. This ceramic type is found almost exclusively on sites dating between 1650 and 1700.

Another small find was a wooden fragment, rounded in one dimension, and resembling a piece of a hollow log. Microscopic species testing on the object indicates that it is elm, which was commonly used as the keel of a ship, or as the bilge pump. The shape is consistent with that of a bilge pump, and the location of the find well within the ballast would make sense, although any number of wooden fittings would be possible.

The ballast itself is a diagnostic artifact, helping to determine where this vessel was when it ballasted. Geologist Ralph Eshelman, PhD, examined the stones, indicating that they were likely English in origin, with a possibility of also being from Newfoundland, as the geologies are very similar. Further work has found a possible source of the ballast, from a unique cobble spit along the North Devon coast of England called the Northam Burrows Pebble Ridge. This source is very near the kiln sites for the ceramic sherd found on our site, making it very possible that this vessel was trading between North Devon or Bristol, and the Chesapeake. These are well documented trade routes, typically exchanging wool and pottery for Tobacco.

Additionally, a number of handmade bricks were found in association with the ballast, creating the possibility that they were either used as ballast, or perhaps from the ship’s hearth, although no mortar was found on any of the samples, indicating that they were not part of any constructed feature on board.

The evidence all points to an English ship, dating to the second half of the 17th century, possibly trading from  southwest England. The proximity to shore and the low density of artifacts indicate that the ship was abandoned here along the shores of St. Mary’s, and would have been stripped of anything of value. The vessel likely came into port heavily damaged by storms or ship worms, and was deemed unsafe for further travel and beyond repair. Ships were often used beyond their safe usable life, and this one appears to have been fortunate to have made it to port rather than being lost at sea. No timbers were found in the excavations, indicating that the site is either in a very bad state of decay, or that it keeled over on one side as it decomposed. Future testing of the site is necessary to better understand these questions.

This is only the 2nd 17th century English vessel identified on mainland North America, the other being the pinnace Sparrow Hawk which wrecked along the shores of Boston in 1626. Additionally, this is the first ship associated with the Chesapeake tobacco trade yet found, and we hope to learn more about it through further analysis and research. Thanks to everyone who helped with this project! I will be giving a lecture tomorrow evening (25 July 2013) at the visitors center at Historic St. Mary’s City at 7.00pm to discuss the project, our findings, and some other facets of my research. Entry is free. Hope to see many of you there!


Our trusty boat, the 'floating porch'Image 1AMBA0012AMBA0010DSCF1192AMBA0056
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Photos from the 2013 fieldwork season at Historic St. Mary’s City

Update – 16 July, 2013

Hi everyone!

Terribly sorry for not updating for several weeks. The explanation for the delay is that we have some findings to announce, and have been waiting for an appropriate time to put the word out. This is still not the platform in which we wish to announce our findings, but we will be issuing a press release in the next week, after which time I will be discussing the findings more openly on this blog and in the media. Rest assured, exciting things are on the way. I will also be giving a talk on the 25th of July at Historic St. Mary’s City on my findings and other research at 7.00pm to kick off the Tidewater Archaeology Days at the museum. The lecture is free and open to the public, so we hope to see you there!


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.