Digging up the past: Archaeological finds in Washington County

July 08, 2011|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • A look some of the places that pieces of the past have been discovered.
Graphic by Chad Trovinger

Picture this: A wooded land at the bottom of a 1,000-foot ridge. Sunlight slants through oaks and beeches. Birds warble. Insects buzz. Two streams gurgle as they meet a stone's throw away.

A hunting party of Woodland Indians appears, following a barely discernible path through the undergrowth. The Indians carry flint-like stones.

The leader stops, looks around and locates a wide, flat area near the confluence of the streams. It's last year's camp site. Group members build a fire and set up camp.

Over several days, the Indians shape the rocks into knife blades and projectile points for arrows and spears. When their work is done, they pack up their blades and points and head north to their permanent village.

Time passes. The Indians move on and stop using their old campsite. Wind blows. Storms bring floods. Trees die and decompose. New trees grow. The campsite is obliterated.

Centuries pass. Eventually, new settlers move to the wooded land. The colonists clear trees, build stone houses and plant crops. A wagon path develops along the bottom of the high ridge and, unnoticed, over the old Indian campsite.

More time passes. The colony becomes part of a new nation. The wagon path becomes a road. It is paved in gravel, and later in asphalt. Still later, another road intersects it. A small town develops just to the east.  

And then, about 2,000 years after the Woodland Indians first established the camp, a new traffic circle is planned where the two roads intersect. But before road construction begins, an archaeological team is called to examine the ground. They expect to find remains from the era of the colonists. Instead, the team finds stone chips, broken points and other evidence of the Indian stone-knapping party.

Those stone pieces are now on display in a recently opened exhibit at the Hagerstown-Washington County Visitors and Convention Bureau in downtown Hagerstown. The stone flakes are displayed with artifacts from two other sites excavated in Washington County.

History is people

The exhibit is part of a pilot project of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. Patricia Samford, director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, said the idea is to take some of the lab's artifacts and return them to the counties from which they came. Washington County is one of the first counties to participate in the program.

But the larger idea, Samford said, is to remind people that history is not about objects. It's about people.

"There's been a huge range of human history — many hundreds of thousands of years, and writing has not existed for most of that time," she said. "So archaeology is a window into the past, especially for people who didn't write — for Native Americans, women, the poor, free blacks."

Becky Morehouse, state curator for the MAC lab, helped assemble the Washington County exhibit.

"The three sites we chose for the exhibit are probably three of the more significant sites in the county," she said. "But there are almost 600 archaeology sites in Washington County. That sounds like a lot, but for most sites, there has not been any extensive excavation done."

There are some prominent, well-known Colonial sites and Civil War sites in Washington County, but fewer American Indian sites. Morehouse said American Indians didn't build many permanent villages in the valleys of Western Maryland. The valleys of the eastern Appalachian Mountains were traveling corridors between Indian settlements farther north and farther south. This area was also rich in resources, such as deer and rhyolite, a volcanic rock.

"Just looking at the recorded sites, they really look like there's a lot of short-term sites — traveling, hunting, stopping for a short time," Morehouse said. "Rock shelters were used as temporary camps. They were natural formations that provide good cover."

Layers of history

Another member of the team that developed the archaeological exhibit is Beth Hickey, executive director of Montgomery County Historical Society.

"History isn't just one era," she said. "We picked one site to show the depth of history — the Native American site that dates back 2,000 years."

The other two sites in the exhibit show other aspects of Washington County's past: Colonial military history at Fort Frederick; and traditional German residential history at the Reiff farm near Cearfoss.

"Archaeology was key to understanding the Fort Frederick site," she said. "The artifacts show the daily lives of the soldiers and ... the daily life of the officers."

In a fort, archaeologists found the expected bullets, rifle parts and other artifacts related to a military facility. But Hickey said pottery offered insights to daily life in the British frontier fort, established 20 years before the American Revolutionary War. The tea ceremony was an important part of the officers' daily routine, and they used fine, white china imported from Great Britain. Pieces of china were found in refuse heaps in Fort Frederick. But the pottery used by ordinary soldiers was not fancy; it was locally made redware.

Pieces of a similar redware were found at the Reiff farm, established near Cearfoss in the early 1800s. Hickey was on the team that worked the Reiff farm.

"The area we excavated was a tenant house," Hickey said. "We looked at pottery. At a time when more people were relying in imports, the local people were relying on local manufacturing, such as redware. That might have helped those businesses survive longer."

One man's trash ...

An archaeologist is like a storyteller, piecing together lives of long-dead people by looking at the buildings and objects that survive. Even broken objects and other trash can tell stories about an earlier time.

"People, when they throw their garbage out, they don't think people will go through it 200 years later," Samford said. "People were not thinking about other people interpreting their life. But a piece of broken pottery for the most part provides us with as much information as the entire piece."

But artifacts are only half of the clues. The other half are clues about how the buildings and objects were used — objects found close together, objects found in different soil layers, records of human usage such as a firepit or fencepost or a concentration of grape pollen.

All this makes archaeology fascinating to Hickey.

"The most fascinating part is taking artifacts and telling the story," she said. "The goal of archaeology is to get out the human aspect."

But if artifacts are moved from their original setting, the historical value is lost, she said. This was a problem at the home built by Jonathan Hager, founder of Hagerstown. John Bryan, historic sites facilitator for the City of Hagerstown, said that during the process of developing the north end of City Park, a lot of soil was rearranged by bulldozer. But that process pushed around the land that Jonathan Hager walked on and worked on.

Still, some objects were found in and around the house, Bryan said. These are on display in the small museum next to Hager House.

"It gave us a lot of clues about what activities (the family) performed and where," he said. "Bits of bone and metal were found in the main spring room downstairs. They did butchering and blacksmithing there. Pottery shards found on the ground, especially under the porch area. That showed what kinds of redware they used in the day."

Hager and his wife, Elizabeth, tossed broken crockery and other debris out of sight, Bryan said. The Hagers had no privy — an outhouse that was also commonly used as a trash dump — so they threw debris under the porch.

Industrial archaeology

Western Maryland's pioneers sought to be as self-sufficient as possible, but they turned to specialists for some goods and services. Shops in town sold fashionable clothes and china imported from Great Britain. Even in the mid-1700s, some goods from Europe made it to local shops, according to Dr. Susan Trail, superintendent of Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, Md.

But as the frontier developed, local industry also developed.

"From the earliest settlement in the county, there are remnants of industry — iron-working industry, milling industry — dozens and dozens of mills," Trail said. "Water power was used. It was the power that was available. So you had grain mills, sawmills, fulling mills — part of the cloth-making process — (and) plaster mills to grind lime."

Trail supervised excavations of the Mount Aetna Furnace, hidden beneath the hillside behind Mount Aetna Volunteer Fire Department, in 1982 and '83. Trail's team uncovered a water-powered iron-smelting furnace and associated artifacts.  

Trail said it's not uncommon to find remnants of the past when someone sticks a shovel in the ground. Land uses change. New construction can reveal older buildings. And sometimes clues to the past are in plain site.

"You'll find old stone fence lines that now run through woods," Trail said, "but they used to mark farmland property lines. As archaeologists, we spend a lot of time looking at that and figuring out how people lived."

And history is being created all the time, Samford pointed out. Just as an 18th-century family's buildings and trash tell 21st-century archaeologists a lot about the family, so our buildings and trash will reveal a lot about us.

"Some (pioneer) houses had stick-and--mud chimneys," she said. "Every so often, they had to rechink the sticks. So they dug a hole for new clay, and they filled those with household garbage.

"Today we have garbage trucks. I don't know what archaeologists will think in 200 years when they find landfills."

If you go ...


WHAT: Artifacts found in and around Jonathan Hager House

WHEN: Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

WHERE: Hager House Museum, 110 Key St., Hagerstown City Park.

COST: Admission to the museum is free. Tours of Jonathan Hager House costs $3 for adults; $2, seniors; $1, ages 7 to 12; and free for ages 6 and younger.

CONTACT: Call 301-739-8393 or go to


WHAT: Historic and prehistoric artifacts found at three sites near Cearfoss, Big Pool and Mount Aetna.

WHEN: Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Exhibit continues through August.

WHERE: Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau Welcome Center, 6 N. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown

COST: Admission is free.

CONTACT: Call 301-791-3246 or go to

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