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March 29, 2005

Archaeology in Frederick

Three years ago, at the completion of the first Frederick 101 course offered by the City of Frederick, participants were asked to present on a personal topic that we felt the City should address, and my concern was to bring  archaeology to Frederick planning and zoning. 

Having grown up in Alexandria, Virginia I had participated in one of the great public archaeology programs in the country, I had joined digs and learned some identification of artifacts in the lab.  It went hand in hand with my love of history. 

Alexandria is a place where daily you walk with George Washington and Robert E. Lee, you pass their churches and homes, you eat at the same tavern, you see a cobblestone street or two, and a rigged ship at the dock.  History seems to live on there in a way that it does in only a few other places I’ve been, and yet the City thrives in a modern economy.

But what made the mythical man, Washington, real to me, was not only the false teeth, or the grandfather clock stopped when he died, or the lengthy written journal records of his daily life. 

What made Washington real came from archaeology done at Mount Vernon by Boy Scouts.  Outside his dining room window they found piles of pork chop bones, where upon being eaten, they were tossed out the window, and from them we learned not only that casual difference in etiquette, but that the dogs had gathered to gnaw upon them.  It was easy to visualize, and I could relate to Washington then in another way, as he lived.

It's not an important find, or an important thing to know, but it’s a one small example of the vast well of knowledge and real life experience that we can learn from artifacts of long past lives.  It was not something we’d learn even from his extensive journals.

In Frederick, this great crossroads of history, there is much lying in the ground that we can learn.  Our prehistory is broad and still largely undefined.  Beginning 10,000 years ago at least, hunters passed through here when the county was a great savannah grassland, the sea having retreated.  Later tribes made villages here for hundreds of years at a time, at least four major ones are known. 

One very important one, which lies in ground that is virtually undisturbed since it use as a village, called the Rosenstock site, lies within Frederick City boundaries. By that time, Frederick was nearly entirely wooded with mature hardwood forests, fish and game abounded.  In the pits that have been excavated, cougar skulls and bones of dozens of wild species have been found.  There are human remains too.

The colonial history of Frederick is rich too, and it is different from what we know of Annapolis, because we had more German immigrants here.  They were smaller farmers than the English plantations of Southern Maryland and Anne Arundel. 

We had wheat to match their tobacco.  Slavery was less important here, except for the iron works and large concern of L’Hermitage, which is being dug on the Monocacy Battlefield by the National Park Service.  In fact, it’s the only place in all the national parks that the country will own and study a slave quarters.  It will prove invaluable to understanding their lives and the social relationships of the owners and slaves there. 

The names of the slaves are mostly lost to history, as are their later lives and locations, but we’ll glimpse their conditions here near Frederick as we’ve never been able to do before, because of archaeology.

The taverns along the budding National Road in Frederick were famous and any one would likely yield a treasure trove for history buffs and tourist interest, and would likely fill a museum.  A peculiar habit of the inhabitants then was to dump all waste items of the household in the cistern. 

The table wares will tell the story of international trade to the far colonies, the foods of the frontier guests, the games they enjoyed and everyday embellishments of dress.  It will tell a story about a part of our history.

And we were truly Revolutionary.  We tested the Stamp Act, held protests and mock coffin burials and hung the tax man in effigy here.  Our courts staged a rejection of the Crown’s rules. Traitors were convicted. 

Our inhabitants risked life and property for the cause of freedom.  We gathered info and food and guns and clothing and shoes and hats for the troops.  Our men fought well.  We took in the mercenary prisoners.  Many stayed with us upon their releases.  Objects representing our rebellion era are here too, in our own  hallowed ground.

Dozens of local volunteers spend hundreds of hours every year assisting with archaeology.  They’ve yearned to do more locally, and to be able to save a small part of what’s valuable and being lost every day.  After 55 years as an amateur archaeologist in Frederick County, Spencer Geasey has taught a few things to the professionals and a host of other interested amateurs.  Frederick County was a destination for native tribes throughout the tidewater areas for its volcanic stone of the Catoctins, rhyolite.  From it came the arrowheads and tools we still find today.

Spencer can drive through town and point out many locations where the irreplaceable pieces of our past have been bulldozed and built over without any consideration of their potential value.  Frankly, it breaks his heart, for you don't involve yourself over many long years in a pursuit unless you love it.  So seeing those places lost, while knowing what they contain, has weighed on him over those years.

I too have learned much from him and his work, and from his wife, Nancy, whose many years and invaluable contacts allowed my grassroots effort to proceed in an intelligent fashion.

I spent several months just talking with the contacts throughout the State.  I listened and noted who else each suggested that I contact.  I studied the existing regulations and programs, of which there are a number, and those numbers keep growing.  Then I called a meeting of all those friends and advisors of our efforts, and we sat together and formed a loose coalition to promote Frederick archaeology.  I felt that their backing gave us the strength and authority to proceed.

Then I began leading a campaign, blasting officials with emails and long discussions and diatribes on the benefits of local archaeology.  It was a long learning process, it was about building a grassroots effort. It was about continuing when things looked bleak, and waiting for the opportunities to speak out.  Over time we were heard and considered.

Our partners came in with expert testimony.  We realized from the outset, that we could only accomplish this in a careful consideration of, and an on-going relationship with the development and business community.  Whatever our regulations, we would lose anytime archaeology cost an unnecessary dollar or day of time from building.  And, that it would never all have been saved.  A few arrowheads would not be stopping development, that is not the goal.  But by getting a survey of what existed before it was lost, would allow the chance to save the most important pieces of this great puzzle hiding in our grounds.

By being up-front in the process, we could also achieve protections without direct costs.  Often the areas of concern would become open space, or forest, or parks.  Sometimes buildings would simply be sited away from the discovered ground where cultural resource lay.  It stood the test elsewhere of being a win-win relationship.  That was what we sought in Frederick.

On Wednesday night, as part of the new Land Management Code, we hope to finally see the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of Frederick City further the approval an ordinance for archaeological protection in Frederick City.  We know that it will be for the common good of all here. 

And all of us who already go out and do the digging and the research and give of ourselves, will keep on doing that and sharing it with everyone in the community that we can.

Learn More at Frederick Archaeology