A Brief History of the Historic St. Mary’s City
Field School in Historical Archaeology
Teaching students the art of archaeology has a very long history at Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC). It is one of the earliest training programs in historical archaeology offered in the United States, beginning in 1971. In that year, the museum’s first archaeologist, Garry Wheeler Stone, in collaboration with St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), offered a summer training session. They investigated the lawn of the rebuilt 1676 State House, and located prehistoric and colonial features as well as evidence of a buried ravine. Later that summer, they began exploring a depression on a nearby property that was hoped to be a 17th-century site. Instead, it proved to be an 18th-century house known as Pope’s Freehold, with a cellar full of 19th-century trash.
A greatly expanded program was offered in 1972. This research was a collaborative effort between HSMC, SMCM, George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution in a 10 week session, with support from National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation grants. Excavations resumed at Pope’s Freehold to complete the excavation and record the 18th-century building. Attention next turned to the St. John’s site, the first major 17th-century site explored with modern archaeological methods in Maryland. It was built in 1638 and was inhabited into the early 18th century.
This field school included undergraduate and graduate students working with a crew of paid excavators. The students received lectures on the latest work from leading scholars, including Dr. Lois Green Carr and Russell Menard (documentary research), Dr. Cary Carson (architectural history), Dr. Wilburn Washburn (Chesapeake history), and Dr. Stone (archaeological methods). Topics covered included artifacts, demography, the tobacco economy, the study of probate inventories, British and colonial architecture, and the story of Maryland’s founding and its first capital.
The St. John’s work spanned the summers of 1972–1975, with more limited work in 1976. The grants concluded in 1975. In 1974, a portion of the field school was assigned the task of beginning work on another early site known as the Van Sweringen Council Chamber Inn. It was the most elegant inn in the colony and portions of the site had been uncovered and exhibited to the public during the celebration of Maryland’s 300th birthday in 1934. This was the first public display of a colonial archaeological site in the state. Excavations continued on the site during the late 1970s, uncovering the main buildings, an adjacent kitchen with its intact brick floor, and a small wine cellar.
Work at the Van Sweringen site in 1979 and 1980 also involved training in site discovery. To enhance the students’ experience, archaeologist Michael Smolek, then a regional archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust, worked with field school students to conduct a survey to find archaeological sites in nearby areas such as St. Inigoes and Newtown in St. Mary’s County. This not only allowed a large number of new sites to be discovered, but gave students valuable experience in site identification and the procedures needed to record sites in the state’s archaeological data base.
|Field School excavations at the Van Sweringen Site,1974–1975|
The summer of 1980 saw a new relationship begin when HSMC’s field school joined forces with Dr. Mark Leone of the University of Maryland and conducted a joint field school at the Van Sweringen site. The landscape of this 17th-century inn was explored through archaeological sampling. This began a productive five year partnership with the state’s premier academic institution.
A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1981 saw the HSMC Field School and University of Maryland Field School initiate a major project that had the goal of finding the center of the long vanished city. Digging several hundred five-by-five foot units in a stratified random pattern, the students and some paid crew sampled the study area and found many structures, including the first governor’s house, a moated fort dating to the 1640s, Smith’s Ordinary, an store called Cordea’s Hope, and a number of other buildings. The center of the city was finally identified. The field work was led by Dr. Stone, Alexander H. Morrison, and Fraser Neiman, and the overall NEH project was directed by Henry Miller. Smaller sessions with SMCM were conducted in 1986 and 1987 under the co-direction of Miller and Timothy Riordan. The latter work focused largely upon the 1640’s Pope’s Fort, while Leone and the University of Maryland began its celebrated program of investigating Maryland’s other capital city with Archaeology in Annapolis.
A new project by the museum caused the 1988 field school students to turn their efforts to the Chapel Field, seeking to uncover the foundations of Maryland’s first major brick building—the 1660s Brick Chapel. This work continued in 1989 and 1990 under Riordan’s direction and the project was expanded by another NEH grant. Work in the early 1990s by the field school explored the chapel area, leading to the discovery of many human graves, as well as the Priest’s House next to the Chapel (the Priest’s House’s brick-filled cellar was also tested during this season). This work provided critical evidence to inform the reconstruction of the chapel.
The 1992 season also saw testing of sites in the Mill Field, near the original land entrance to the city. That year was especially busy because it involved preparing the area for a large scale scientific project that would investigate three 17th-century lead coffins buried within the chapel, a discovery originally made by field school students in 1989. This internationally reported investigation uncovered and raised each coffin, opened them, and permitted a range of scientists to study the remains. The results were reported in 1994 with the identification of the buried individuals as members of Maryland’s founding family—the Calverts.
Other work in the 1990s included excavations around the 1840’s Brome Plantation in preparation for it being relocated and survey activity by controlled surface collection and the testing of sites identified in the core historic area known as Governor’s Field. In 1996, the field school helped explore a previously unknown building near the Van Sweringen site that the British televisions series TIME TEAM had discovered during the filming of a show at the museum in May of that year.
The early 21st century saw the field school begin work on the Print House site. This had been the location of a group of 1840’s slave quarters of the Brome Plantation. Survey and testing had unexpectedly recovered 17th-century printing type there. Excavators found a 17th-century building directly under one of the 1840s quarters. It was a building used by Maryland’s first printer, William Nuthead. Field school participants sampled the area and help dig features from both the 17th-century building and the 19th-century slave quarter, recovering a rich sample of artifacts associated with 17th-century colonists and enslaved and emancipated African Americans during the 1840–ca.1940 time period. The evidence collected was essential to inform the reconstruction of the Print House as an exhibit and the completion of a doctoral dissertation on African American life at St. Mary’s City.
Students returned to the St. John’s site in 2004 to assist in preparing it for construction of a major exhibit building that would cover the well-preserved foundations of this highly significant 1638 building. In 2005, field school students collected more information from the Van Sweringen site so that a new exhibit could be constructed over the ruins of its Council Chamber. The next season, students tried to find the house of John Morecroft, described by Governor Charles Calvert as the best lawyer in Maryland.
Beginning in 2008, the museum began a sustained effort to more fully investigate the landscape and outbuildings associated with the Calvert House, Maryland’s first state house. This involved digging test pits, mapping fence lines, and excavating fence features to date them and determine how they were constructed. Outbuildings were also located, including a dairy whose cellar was investigated. Perhaps the most unusual find is a possible animal fighting ring in the back yard of the Calvert House. The findings from the Calvert House have formed the basis for one doctoral dissertation and offer the potential for much more research. These excavations continue under the direction of Dr. Travis Parno with the Calvert Site scheduled to become a major museum exhibit by the early 2020s. To see what some of the recent field schools have been discovering, check out our “Dispatches from the Field School” blog.
Since it began, the HSMC Field School has been 10 weeks in duration. It is longer than most field schools because we wish students to complete their field experience having solid skills and confidence in their understanding of how field archaeology is conducted. There is a big difference between just barely grasping the basics and feeling confident that one understands and can proficiently perform professional excavations. This confidence can only come from doing excavations and recording evidence for a sustained period of time. But the longer session also allows us to give students a deeper experience of colonial history and archaeology.
Every student spends time in the laboratory, learning artifact processing procedures and studying some of the materials being found at the site. Each student attends lectures about, and hands-on experience with, all the main artifact groups found on Eastern United States sites, while also learning the key artifacts needed to date sites and features. They are given presentations about colonial history, the tobacco economy, and the methods used to locate archaeological sites. Seventeenth-century probate inventories are explored to better understand what past peoples owned and how their material culture is (or is not) represented in the archaeological record. Probate study also helps students learn how material culture varied by wealth in the early colony. A tour of original and reconstructed architecture is provided to explore architectural history and understand the connection between the features being uncovered on an archaeological site and the buildings that once stood there. Students also have a series of guest speakers who talk about their research at other sites and on topics ranging from the archaeological excavation of shipwrecks to the analysis of colonial human burials. But equally important is learning how to communicate with visitors about archaeology.
Public archaeology has been a key aspect of the HSMC Field School since its beginning, with formal tours first offered in 1972. Students are taught how to give guided tours of the excavations in which they explain the site’s history and share the team’s digging methods and discoveries to museum visitors. They also participate in planning and conducting a major annual public archaeology event called Tidewater Archaeology Weekend, which the museum began thirty years ago in 1987.
To broaden their experience, the class visits other public excavations in Maryland and Virginia and historically significant museums such as Jamestown and Williamsburg on field trips. Finally, each student has the rare opportunity to learn about, sail on, and help operate one of HSMC’s exhibits: an authentic reconstruction of a 17th-century square rigged pinnace, The Maryland Dove. This field school is a unique academic experience that allows students to better learn about the past, how it can be explored, and how they can share their discoveries with others.
The Historic St. Mary’s City Field School in Historical Archaeology is one of the oldest ongoing programs of its type in North America. It has trained generations of students who now teach in colleges and universities, or work in private, state, and national museums, government agencies, cultural resource managements companies, and other businesses. HSMC Field School graduates are found throughout the United States and Canada, in England, and in other parts of the world. Among the field school alumni who have pursued careers in archaeology are Joanne Bowen, Alasdair Brooks, Virginia Busby, Susan Henry, Audrey Horning, Matthew Reeves, Michelle Sivilich, Brent Wiseman, and Wes Willoughby. To read what former students had to say about their experiences at the HSMC Field School, head to the “Looking Back and Thinking Forward” page.
–By Henry M. Miller, March 2017