Saturday, November 10, 2007

New Web Page for Antietam Battlefield

Well, I thought everybody on the team, including April, was taking the day off, but no sooner than I started posting this message then April's blog-of-the-day appeared. Still, I take this opportunity to announce a new web page: Antietam Battlefield, just posted today ( No, it isn't a work of least not yet...but it summarizes our findings at Antietam National Battlefield from late last year. For more on the Battlefield, visit the National Park Service website ( and the many other sites that offer transcriptions of eyewitness accounts, period and recent photographs, and
schedules of events.

Port Tobacco, as you have seen from previous postings on this blog, played a role in the American Civil War. Although not a main thrust of our current research, team members will periodically contribute pieces on the war that pertain directly to Port Tobacco. News from other projects will continue to be posted on other web pages.

Now read April's blog below.

The Heart of Port Tobacco

Without the downtown port, lost to sediment that choked off the river one mile south of the town, the courthouse was the heart of Port Tobacco until fire claimed the central portion of the courthouse in 1892. The two wings of the building were left standing and in this photo their presence only draws the viewers attention to what has been lost. Between the courthouse wings we can make out the second story of the jailhouse which sat behind the courthouse. In the far left is the Episcopal Christ Church. In the far right is the Smoot House, a boarding house.

The destruction of Port Tobacco's courthouse solidified plans to relocate the county seat to nearby La Plata. A new courthouse and jail were constructed there. Not long afterwards, Port Tobacco's Christ Church was slowly dismantled and reconstructed in La Plata, there is reclaimed its place beside the Charles County courthouse. The heart of Port Tobacco was essentially transplanted into the body of La Plata.

Relocated Christ Church and new County Courthouse (1953).

Circa 1900 Jailhouse constructed behind the earlier version of the La Plata courthouse.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Help from Local Engineers and Draftman

In our quest to figure out what occurred geologically at Port Tobacco, Bolton & Associates (an engineering company) and Sean Phelan, draftman, have come to the rescue. They placed our digital drawing on a larger topographic map of the area. The drawings are compatible and both are in three dimensions. Hopefully we will have some 3D images to share before too long. For now, here is a view of Port Tobacco and part of the valley from overhead.

(Click image for larger view.)

The dark red lines to the right of the drawing illustrate the steep slopes east of town and the green arrows show the ravines through which water and sediment flowed into town. Fan deposits of alluvium appear at the bottoms of the ravines, and it takes little to imagine how those sediments buried earlier deposits.

The symbols on the map (e.g., WoA) represent soil types, the descriptions of which appear on the right side of the drawing. The Soil Conservation Service described the Woodstown soils as "somewhat gravelly" in 1974; but they were describing a general class of soil that appears all over Charles County, and the specifics of their description are for an area near Newtown, some miles to the east on Budd's Creek. The Woodstown sandy loams at Port Tobacco are very gravelly, probably because they derive from the eroded, gravelly soils of the adjoining uplands.


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Lab Work

Over the last two days at the MHT lab we have been able to finish washing all of the artifacts collected to date. We have also bagged half of the artifacts! Thanks to the hard work of staff and our volunteers we are well on our way to analyzing all of the artifacts. Next week we will be finishing the bagging and start to catalog all of the artifacts.

The process of bagging artifacts is an easy one: separate the artifacts by type (ceramics, glass, nails, etc...), make tags for each bag, label the bags, perforate the bags and then put into storage boxes.

A huge thank you goes out to Maxine, Walt and John for their help over the past two days in this process.

While we were cleaning and bagging, John came across a very interesting and exciting piece of ceramic...which I'll tell you all about on Monday!


Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Blog About Blogging

Our two month blog anniversary is right around the corner (Friday the 9th if you want to send a gift) so I thought I'd take a moment to talk about the blog itself. If you are reading this you must know what a blog is and how it works...or do you. I thought I did until I started getting involved in the nuts and bolts of this blog.

See, blogs are easy to set up. The trick is in getting readers and in keeping them. As much as we enjoy talking about our research, it takes a bit of time and coordination to make sure we get a post up everyday. (Despite what Jim thinks, we didn't miss a post last week.) What makes this effort worth while is knowing that people are reading. (You are still reading, aren't you?).

If you haven't noticed already, the left hand side of the blog has some features that I added to help us keep track of site traffic and to help us improve the blog. The stats are fun to look at. I was thrilled when someone in Moscow spent 3.5 hours reading here but that doesn't tell me much about why that visitor came here or stayed so long. That is the purpose of the poll, also in the left hand column. Every 6 weeks or so I put up some of my new ideas for the blog and let the visitors vote so I know what you want to see...or don't want to see. Of course you can always leave a message after one of the posts or send one of us a message. Our e-mails are listed on our profile pages, also on the left hand column.

To get the word out about this blog I have added us to a slew of blog directories. These sites list us for free if we provide a link back to them, hence the long list of buttons near the bottom of the left column. Some of these sites allow visitors to vote for their favorite blogs or even rank the blogs. The more votes or the higher rank we get, the easier it is for people to find us.

Another way to spread the word about our blog is to become part of a blog carnival (who knew?). A blog carnival is like a magazine of blogs about a specific topic. There is only one archaeology blog carnival that I know of, it is called Four Stone Hearth, and we are featured in the latest issue. You can catch up on back issues of Four Stone Hearth here or read the most recent at the Sorting Out Science blog which is here.

For those of you who are dedicated readers, you might be interested in our feed. Since we do not post a blog at the same time every day, it may be easier to keep track of us through our Atom Feed, also in the left column. By subscribing to the feed you will be notified every time a new post is made. Most browsers (like Safari or Firefox) allow you to subscribe to feeds by clicking on the atom link and then bookmarking that page in the browser. Then when a new post is made here, your browser will show the number one next to our name in your bookmarks.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact us. We would like to see more comments being left here, after posts, just so everyone can feel like there is a community here. But, readers have been e-mailing Jim on a regular basis and that is fine too. We have to keep Jim busy.

That's all for now. Tomorrow's blog should be a lab update from the boys.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Chesapeake/Potomac Hurricane of 1933

Yesterday, Jim blogged about the sediment at Port Tobacco. It is dificult to convey the importance of "layers of dirt" at this site. In essence, some parts of the town appear to have been buried by feet of silt, and others by feet of gravel, while some areas have very little of either. To complicate matters, the soils encountered in shovel test pits behind the Burch House bear little resemblance to those in front of it. Major storms are a probable source of these silt and gravel deposits. Heavy winds, rains, and floods can move a large amount of soil, especially in areas where natural vegetation has been lost to farming and livestock grazing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains an on-line databse of major storms; however their records do not begin until the late 1800s. A search of the historical hurricane tracks show that one major hurricane passed right over Port Tobacco, the Chesapeake/Potomac Hurricane of 1933. By reviewing accounts of this storm's impact on the town we hope to get a better sense of the impact of earlier storms.

There are several accounts of this hurricane available on-line, many of which compare it to Hurricane Isabel of 2003. One account compared the effects of the two storms on one property in Maryland. One difference was that the 1933 storm deposited 3.5 feet of sediment!


Monday, November 5, 2007

Sediment, the Neglected Artifact

Archaeologists like stuff...there's no denying it. We revel in artifacts and, most particularly ceramics. And there are good reasons for that: artifacts in general, and ceramics in particular, can be dated, described in any number of ways, and illustrated. Reports and publications rich in artifact photographs and drawings will garner more attention then those with tables, charts, and unit profiles. (Compare the tin-glazed sherd and the profile drawing from one of our units at Port Tobacco.)

It isn't surprising, then, that the bulk of archaeological data receives very little attention, both in the field and in the lab. Most of it, in fact, is pushed through screens and then disposed of in piles or used to backfill excavation units. When it comes to documenting soil, a brief description of color and texture is all that typically happens. The more fastidious will seek several colors and several textures in what many would regard as a single layer of undifferentiated soil; but even that detailed information rarely finds its way through analysis and into the main body of the report. The project team is determined not to let that happen at Port Tobacco where, we think, soils hold the key to much of what happened to the town between its founding in the early 1700s until its virtual abandonment around 1900.

April and I have been planning a detailed strategy for studying the sediments at Port Tobacco, the first stage of which occurred, and will continue, during our shovel testing. Much of that work, we hope, will be underwritten by several grants; so I will not go into a great deal of detail. We hope to use sophisticated geophysical survey equipment, specifically a ground-penetrating radar and a proton magnetometer, coupled with more conventional archaeological techniques, to recover the data that we need. We will then analyze those data with the aid of advanced computer technologies such as three-dimensional computer-aided drafting and geographic information systems.

Oddly enough, for archaeologists, we intend to use the geophysical survey equipment in the manner in which it was originally explore site geology. But that isn't to say we will not seek archaeological deposits as well. The equipment, if we are successful in securing it, will help us identify buildings, graves, derelict vessels in the river, and buried wharves and piers along the banks. Exciting stuff, all of the digital, quantitative data that these gizmos can produce; but fear not: we'll still be out there looking for and collecting artifacts, and pictures of pots and shoe buckles will take their rightful places next to the charts, tables, and profiles.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Search of President John Hanson

This past Friday I made a return visit to Mulberry Grove, a plantation house just south of Port Tobacco. While lying outside of Port Tobacco proper, Mulberry Grove and other plantations and farms were critical to the town's survival. The farmers raised the tobacco that comprised the principal export and they brought their patronage to merchants and tradesmen in town. No study of Port Tobacco can be balanced without learning something of its rural neighbors.

The purpose of my visit, however, was not strictly archaeological. Scott and I went there to assess the condition of the Hanson-Fergusson cemetery with an eye toward helping the current owner, Mr. Ed Edelen, restore it. We also share Mr. Edelen's interest in learning the fate of the mortal remains of John Hanson, the first President of the United States of America under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1782), before the adoption of our present constitution.

Fergusson monuments at Mulberry Grove.

John Hanson was born at Mulberry Grove in either 1715 or 1721 (we are not sure). Although he resided in Frederick County at the time of his death, he met his end at his nephew's home at Oxon Hill, Prince George's County, in 1783. He is reputed to have been buried at Oxon Hill, but there is no monument marking his grave there, in Frederick, or at Mulberry Grove. His wife Jane (nee Contee), however, was buried at Mulberry Grove upon her death in 1812, as are two of their infant children. Each of those three graves is marked by a ledger stone (a large, flat piece of marble placed horizontally on a brick foundation), and there is a space between Jane's monument and those of her two children. Furthermore, there is a depression in that space. Had someone dug a hole looking for a grave? or is the depression a grave, possibly that of John Hanson?

Scott and I are considering ways in which we can determine whether this is a grave without actually disturbing the grave. We also are considering measures to repair and plumb the rest of the monuments that mark the graves of Mulberry Grove's occupants. (Scott is certified in the repair of marble monuments and the two of us have worked on the documentation and restoration of several cemeteries in Maryland and Delaware.) While the search for John Hanson has its own particular interests and challenges, the search for cemeteries in the area will not end there. We know there is at least one cemetery at Port Tobacco buried beneath the silt, and I suspect there are others, and there are likely others at neighboring plantations. We are hoping to receive a grant that will allow us to purchase some of the advanced technologies that will improve our ability to locate and define cemeteries without necessarily excavating them. Keep fingers crossed.