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.

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!