Friday, January 29, 2010

“Ecology, Commerce, Conflict and Transportation Along the Anacostia River”, Part II, Ecology

This paper was co-authored by Mike Roller and Julie Schablitsky and presented at the 2010 Conference for the Society for Historical Archaeology. It is based upon their work in Bladensburg. Here is part II:

Chartered in 1742 as a port town, Bladensburg is located on the Anacostia River south of the confluence of the Northeast and Northwest branches. This location was chosen for its suitability as a port for the export of tobacco from plantations spread across Maryland in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, archaeology revealed that the ecology of the Anacostia River near Bladensburg attracted inhabitants much earlier. One of the findings that stirred excitement was a Bare Island quartzite biface dating to the Late Archaic period.

Throughout our excavations we encountered evidence of Native American occupation dating from the Late Archaic to the Woodland Periods. Previously, no recorded Native American sites had been documented. One of our visitors, a representative of the nearby Piscataway tribe and a former resident of Bladensburg, was enthused that the archaeology corroborated the findings of oral narrative. Piscataway oral history describes the shores of the Anacostia River as heavily populated; taking advantage of the rich resources of the wetlands on the edges of the riverbanks and migratory fish in the deep estuarine waters. During the Woodland Period forests were burnt to maintain grassy meadows for corn farming, attracting game and the construction of palisaded villages. By the time of European arrival, complex regional politics had developed and the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed were used as “avenues of commerce and communication”. European settlers would eventually dominate, and completely replace the Native American occupants of the region, settling often in the same spots that offered congenial environmental advantages. These remains were hidden below centuries of silt from the flooding waters of the Anacostia.

The early inhabitants of Bladensburg began, in small degrees, an ecological alteration of the river that, during subsequent European occupation would completely change its ecology. Silt from intensive tobacco farming rendered the river unnavigable by the mid 19th century. Flooding, already a problem in the 18th century was exacerbated by the altered water channel and the routing of runoff from impermeable surfaces into the river. The natural curvatures of the river, which produced the resource-rich floodplain environments used by its prehistoric inhabitants, were straightened and surrounded by dikes by the Army Corps of Engineers beginning in 1952.

The comments we get from the public when we present this evidence from our excavations are often something along the lines of “You found that here, right in town!?” The river’s environment has been so radically changed by its long succession of inhabitants that earlier history, before the concrete, strip malls, and toxic silt, has been essentially unimaginable. But for many residents and Native Americans in the region, finding that Bladensburg history reaches as far back as 5,000 years or older is both a surprise and an affirmation that the river that wound through town was once a rich natural resource that brought people to settle here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“Ecology, Commerce, Conflict and Transportation Along the Anacostia River”, Part I, Public Outreach

This paper, co-authored by Mike Roller and Julie Schablitsky, was presented at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference in January of this year. Here is Part I of the paper:

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and the Center for Heritage Resource Studies (CHRS) at the University of Maryland designed the Bladensburg Archaeology Project as a collaborative partnership to investigate the historic resources of the town of Bladensburg, Maryland in anticipation of the upcoming War of 1812 Bicentennial. Bladensburg, a seemingly ordinary suburban community located approximately two miles to the northeast of the Washington, D.C. border, has a rich history that stretches back to the Colonial period. Since that time, Bladensburg has rapidly changed as a result of broad regional and national changes in ecology, economy, political geography, and demography. Today, the historic landscape is invisible behind the dense fabric of transportation corridors, commercial development and industrial spaces. Through archaeology and community outreach, this modern veil has parted to reveal a complex history that spans from the prehistoric period to the mid 20th century.

The project incorporated a civic engagement component that directly involved the community in discovering its past. In engaging the public through addressing their questions about our work and our finds, sharing in their enthusiastic reactions and joining in their civic functions, we were better able to share the experience of our work, and its findings in a way that was meaningful and relevant to the community. Additionally, in demystifying the process of doing archaeology we helped the public understand how it works, why it is important, and how it can be useful to them in their community today.

Since the initiation of the project in the spring of 2009 archaeologists and historians investigated three archaeological sites, conducted documentary and deed research, and compiled architectural inventories in the town. The outreach component of the project began a few weeks before excavations commenced. An initial public history workshop presented the plans and goals of the project to the community. The workshop included a talk by local historians followed by a community discussion in which attendants were encouraged to provide feedback and communicate their interests in the project.

The Maryland State Highway Administration began excavations at the Magruder house, a ca. 1746 stone house built for William Hilleary, in May of 2009. Public site tours, a press conference, and news releases accompanied this work. Throughout the process, staff maintained a project blog with daily updates collected from each member of the field crew. Through the blog, researchers answered questions from the community and from a wider public audience. In June of 2009 CHRS joined the State Highway archaeologists to investigate the grounds of the Market Master's house. Like the Magruder house, open site tours, electronic documentation and public presentations accompanied the archaeology work. Upon completion of the excavation, a second workshop allowed members of the community to provide feedback, view artifacts, and discuss local history. In order to engage and initiate dialogue from the community, project staff also attended numerous community events, celebrations, and meetings where they presented artifacts and released preliminary interpretations from the work. Although insufficient time had passed to reveal results from the excavations, these opportunities to publicly demonstrate the process of archaeology was key to project goals.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If These Sherds Could Talk

Nichole: I learned about a new ceramic type today that I have never seen before. I was curious about two small rim fragments from the Market Master House collection that looked pretty unusual. They were thinly potted redware sherds with yellow and dark brown/black transfer printed decoration on both sides. (See bottom left photo.) With only having very small pieces, I was having a hard time imagining what the rest of the pot could possibly have looked like. The odd color combination and wild pattern made me think it must have been a gift that was only displayed when the person who gave it came to visit.

At a colleague’s suggestion, I looked for the mystery sherds in a wonderful reference book; Hume’s If These Pots Could Talk. Sure enough, there it was; a picture of a beautiful Portobello ware milk pitcher. Our once complete milk pitcher was imported from Scotland in the late eighteenth century. Since Bladensburg was a port town, its residents could easily access foreign goods. Portobello ware has also been found at Riversdale.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Conference Paper Presentation on the Bladensburg Archaeology Project

Early in January of this year two members of the Bladensburg Archaeology Project presented a preliminary conference paper on their work with the public. The paper, entitled “Ecology, Commerce, Conflict and Transportation Along the Anacostia River”, was presented at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference held this year in Amelia Island, Florida. (conference and society website: It was co-authored by Michael Roller and Julie Schablitsky. The conference session it was featured in was entitled “Big History at Small Places”. It focused on projects like Bladensburg that contain long and diverse archaeological histories in confined geographical areas. Papers were delivered from projects as far away as Iceland, Mongolia, Alaska, California and Massachusetts. We’ll post the paper on the blog in increments.

We are also planning our upcoming field season starting this May. We will kick it off with a workshop to be held in mid-April. The topic is yet to be decided. We look forward to seeing you there! Keep your eye on the blog in the meantime.