Saturday, July 26, 2008

PortTobacco on the Road and the Trail

Pete tells me that we will complete artifact washing this Tuesday at the Crownsville lab. We will then start labeling artifacts and, of course, cataloguing will continue. Until we get all of the material catalogued and the maps and profiles drafted, analysis can proceed only fitfully. In the meantime, however, the team is beginning to put some of what we have learned to use and we are developing approaches for sharing what we will be learning once those analyses are complete.

(1) Between September 11 and 14, the Port Tobacco Archaeological Project will have a traveling exhibit at the Charles County Fair. It will be in the Flower Building along with other exhibits related to the 350th aniversary of Charles County. The object of the exhibit is engage visitors in conversation about local archaeology and the responses of Port Tobaccoans to the sedimentation of the river that was its source of livelihood. We would like to staff the exhibit for 32 hours over those four days and I will be asking for volunteers to supplement project staff.

(2) Charles County awarded a contract to Gibb Archaeological Consulting (that's me) to explore the potential for developing an interpretive trail with signage from Thomas Stone National Historic Site to Chapel Point State Park by way of Port Tobacco. We will be looking for input from community and other interested parties. Stay tuned for announcements about public meetings and other bulletins. The trail will give us the opportunity to highlight finds from the June ASM field session, as well as new finds from work later this year and in subsequent years.

(3) I have proposed, informally, to several board members of the Charles County Archaeological Society the compilation of a book on Charles County archaeology. This would be a readable, well-illustrated work geared towards the widest possible audience in the county and surrounding jurisdictions. Suggestions for content, funding, etc., are welcome.

These are plans in the works. We are always open to new ideas about what the project might do and how...just hit the comment button and speak your mind.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Wanton Destruction and Stupidity

I apologize for not getting a posting out yesterday. I returned late from meetings and site visits in the northern part of the state. It wasn't all fun.

I stopped in Glen Arm, Baltimore County, to meet with the pastors of a small African Methodist Episcopal church. They were concerned about the possibility of human burials in an area into which they hope to expand their existing church. While we were looking over the area and discussing potential problems, they noted that just a week earlier vandals toppled a number of gravestones in the cemetery, two photographs of which appear below.

This sort of thing happens...a lot. It happens to cemeteries, it happens to historic buildings, it happens to archaeological sites. If you see people milling around a historic site at odd hours or behaving in an inappropriate way, please call the police. Maybe it's nothing, but let the police determine that. They'll appreciate the tip.

I'll get back to more cheerful subjects later today or tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pottery in Native American Component

I stopped by the Crownsville lab yesterday afternoon where Pete, Maxine, and Steve were working. Maxine was washing several large (more than one-inch square) aboriginal pottery sherds with well-placed, sharp-edged cord marks. The remarkable state of preservation suggests that they were not subjected to motorized plows, and possibly not even by plows drawn by draft animals. This bit of evidence further confirms that we have an intact aboriginal component dating to the Late Woodland period. How late (is it Contact period?) remains to be determined.

I'll ask Pete to bring the sherds back to the office on Friday so that we can scan them and post the image on the Friday blog. (You listening Pete?)

I'll be in the northern part of the state tomorrow meeting with folks from the Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake (we'll be discussing further work at Octoraro Locks, the 1803 canal on the Susquehanna River), but Pete will be at the Crownsville lab. Friday I'll be attending a meeting in La Plata concerning Port Tobacco.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

John D. Covell, Constable & Shoemaker

As part of our larger effort of developing biographies for the myriad individuals who lived in and near Port Tobacco...not just the big shots, but the regular folks...I've been working with Carol and Elsie to wed land title and census data to newspapers items. (Okay, maybe 'wed' isn't quite the right word...I don't want to spawn another constitutional amendment movement.) John D. Covell came up in our title search of the Burch House, both he and Washington Burch buying town lots from Frederick Stone, lots which they already occupied at the time of purchase and that had previously been owned by Charles W. Barnes.

John D. Covell first appears in the local newspapers as a constable and bailiff (sounds like he had the job of jailer before Washington Burch) in 1855. He would have been about 28 years old. He probably didn't live in Port Tobacco at the time. We know that Covell purchased a three-quarter acre lot to the south in St. Thomas Manor in 1857 (Land Records JS 2/152). He doesn't appear in the Port Tobacco census database until 1870, by which time he had a wife, Mary R. Covell, age 35 years. She died on February 14, 1874, after having giving birth to four children (Sarah Rebecca, the youngest, died in her seventh month in 1872). Daughter Mary A. Covell (9 years old in 1870) married George Brasser in 1879. We haven't yet followed her career or those of her brothers John D. Covell, Jr., (14) and G. W. Covell (1).

John, Sr., was listed in the 1870 census as a shoemaker. He was listed as such in 1880 as well, but by then he was living alone. Presumably his youngest son, who would have been 11 years old, was living with one of his adult siblings or another relative. John, Sr., died the following year, aged 54 years. We haven't learned who his property went to, but a search of the Orphan's Court records should resolve that issue.

John Covell's life seems quite ordinary, perhaps even dull, when viewed through the few surviving records. Perhaps the unearthing of additional archival references will reveal other dimensions of the man. Perhaps not. But what if we find the house site in which he lived, recover and study the things that he and Mary and their children used? Well, we will end up with more of a three-dimensional character; but like Washington Burch and their neighbors, he is one of the ordinary people of Port Tobacco, the life behind the buildings, the movement on the unpaved roads.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Interesting Artifacts

As I catalog all the many artifacts from our field session I always seem to come across something unique to myself or just unique in general. So that gave me an idea...why not blog on some of the more interesting artifacts we have found at Port Tobacco? I have covered all the basics in glass, ceramics, brick, etc. that has been found so now I am going to concentrate on the unique finds. At first I thought of blogging once a week on an interesting artifact but I'm not sure how long that can last, so instead I will blog about them as I come across them.

Our first "unique" find many of our volunteers have seen but may not know much about it. This item came out of Unit 11 in the "Native American" area of the site. I don't remember who picked it up but it was our ASM volunteer Barry who first identified it along with a secondary verification by our esteemed co-director Jim. What is it you ask? Why it's a Wig Curler of course!!

These nearly identical pieces were recovered from George Washington's Mount Vernon. See their website:

Wig curlers were popular in the 18th Century and have been found on many Colonial era archaeological sites.

From 1680 to the early 1800s, men of fashion often wore wigs of human hair, which were sometimes created from their own cropped tresses. They range in size and shape from 2 1/2" to 3" and were sometimes straight and with curved ends on some. Two different impressed intials were often common, IB or WB, neither of which were found on the one coming out of Port Tobacco.

According to Ivor Noel Hume (see the list of references near the bottom of the left column), the purpose of these curlers was almost the same as that of women's rollers today. The curls of a new wig, or of one being dressed, were rolled in strips of damp paper around the clay curlers, the weight of which served to pull the hair downward against the block over which the wig was seated. The finished curl was tied around the curler with a piece of rag, after which the whole wig was baked, sometimes in a nearby baker's oven.

Curlermaking was most likely a sideline business for tobacco pipemakers but very little is known about the process or the business in general. Archaeology has produced no small number of these items on both English and American sites but the evolution of the wig curler has become lost over time. Food for thought there.

- Peter

Reminder: Tuesdays and Thursdays are lab days at the MHT lab in Crownsville from 9-3. See you there!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Burch's School

As I suspected, the School Commissioners' sale of surplus lands--mostly school lots--provided the location of that African American school that Washington Burch and others initially established. I was surprised: the school was southeast of town and not due east, and it was about 9 miles south of La Plata!

The reader will recall from my last two postings that William and Ann Matthews had conveyed a small lot (about 0.40 acres) to Washington Burch and four other trustees, all African American men. Those trustees later conveyed the parcel to the Board of School Commissioners of Charles County. On January 23, 1912, after a period of more than twenty years of uninterrupted use as a school house lot, the commissioners sold the parcel to Pere Wilmer, Jr., having abandoned it as a school site. Wilmer had purchased a portion of the surrounding tract, variously called Glasva and Glasvar, from the Matthews in 1884 (Land Records BGS 7/10). Glasva extended eastward from modern day US 301 along Budds Creek Road to Allens Fresh. A more precise location cannot readily be deduced from the land records. Perhaps one day we could find it and conduct some archaeological testing to learn about the lives of the students, teachers, and the surrounding community.

The research has not uncovered explicit information as to why the School Commissioners opted to abandon the site. It may well be that enrollment had dropped below the 10 or so students needed to cost-effectively operate the school. It is evident that, unlike many one-room school houses in Maryland, it did not fall victim to consolidation...the establishment of multi-room schools serving large areas made accessible by motor vehicles. Consolidation does not appear to have begun in earnest in Charles County until 1927, 15 years after the closure of the Glasva school. Between 1927 and 1931...a period of five years...the County closed 30 schools. By way of comparison, the School Commissioners sold 64 properties (mostly abandoned school sites) between September 1899 and November 1934, a period of 36 years.

There were schools in Port Tobacco, one of which we reported on (the existing school house on the north side of town). We'll write about the others as our research develops.