Amateur sleuths uncover buried history
They find a tiny bead here, a fish bone there, a piece of a chamber pot, a rusty hinge.
The volunteers, many of them retirees, are working side-by-side with professional archaeologists to unearth centuries-old artifacts that reveal threads of history buried in the dirt.
At two former Maryland and Virginia plantations, archaeological research initially focused on the lives of the owners and their mansions. But that missed a significant part of the story: the people who powered the plantations — the enslaved community who lived and worked there.
Unlike plantation owners, who kept records and wrote letters, enslaved people were denied the right to read and write, so their lives have been largely invisible to many historians.
Escaped slave’s story
In the first half of the 19th century, between 30% and 40% of Montgomery County’s population was enslaved, according to Cassandra Michaud, senior archaeologist for Montgomery Parks.
This year, about 25 volunteers have been excavating the former Riley plantation, near Rockville, Maryland, where more than 20 people were enslaved by Isaac and Matilda Riley.
One of the men who worked on the plantation, Josiah Henson, escaped to Canada, and in 1849 wrote his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Henson’s book inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Riley plantation is now known as Josiah Henson Park. This December, Montgomery Parks is scheduled to open a new museum honoring Josiah Henson at the location.
“Most slaves’ stories were not told,” Michaud said. “His story speaks for all who we don’t know.”
Since 2009, archaeology teams in Josiah Henson Park have discovered evidence of structures and more than 40,000 objects: dishes, glasses, nails, window glass, marbles, dominoes and buttons.
Egg shells and fish, chicken and cow bones from trash pits reveal the diets of those who lived here. Unlike many Southern plantation owners, the Rileys were not rich.
“Most sites study wealthy people, [but] in Rockville in 1820, most people were like Riley. Those sites are not well understood,” Michaud said. “Part of our mission is to make sure people understand the communities that were there.”
Frank Sanford, a retired teacher from Chevy Chase, said his most exciting moment volunteering on the site was unearthing pieces of a chamber pot. His team found three-quarters of the object, which, they determined from its maker’s mark, was manufactured in England.
“We wondered if we could get DNA from it,” he joked.
Fran Kline of Rockville is excited about reassembling the “fascinating artifact,” she said, “because it is such a personal item.”
In addition, Kline found the scratched bottom of a whiskey glass, which “had seen a lot of use,” she said. “I’m fascinated with what happened in a certain place in times past — and the similarities to and differences with human life today.”
At work at Montpelier
About an hour away in Orange, Virginia, about 1,000 volunteers search for clues of life on James and Dolley Madison’s 19th-century plantation, Montpelier.
Led by Dr. Matthew Reeves, director of the archaeology and landscape restoration, they are looking beyond the life of the landed gentry. In fact, Montpelier is reconstructing slave dwellings based on its archaeological research.
With few objects owned by the Madisons surviving, archaeology offers important details about life 200 years ago, Reeves explained, and excavations are the only source of information.
Through volunteers’ efforts they have learned, for example, that the Madisons regularly served suckling pig and veal to show off their wealth, and that enslaved girls played with dolls to practice tending to white women.
At several excavation sites, including the overseer’s and slaves’ dwellings, volunteers have found “treasure troves” of British-manufactured ceramics, bottles and jewelry, along with animal bones, nails, hardware and chimney bricks and stones.
Because James Madison is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” two pipe bowls found are especially ironic and informative. One, found at a slave dwelling site, is etched with the word “Liberty.”
“These pipe bowls demonstrate that the enslaved community had their own ideas and concepts about politics, and that they were political agents as well, despite not having the political rights afforded to others,” said Terry Brock, senior research archaeologist.
Exploring slavery is in part what motivated Washingtonian Victoria Elliott to volunteer three times at Montpelier for five days each.
“It’s a combination of doing something outdoors and physical in the fresh air, and at the same time it’s intellectually interesting,” Elliott said.
Dean Cummins of Reston has volunteered at Montpelier a dozen times because of the site’s mission to interpret the lives of the Madisons and those enslaved there.
“I feel like I’m contributing to it in a small way,” said Cummins, who once found a bottle bearing the Madisons’ seal.
What volunteers do
Much of archaeology requires getting down on your knees or sitting in a pit, trowel in hand, and gently, methodically scraping the dirt to find evidence of human habitation.
Once a bucket of evidence is full, team members pour the dirt onto a sifter, shake it and look for artifacts.
The objects are, by definition, dirty and not always easy to identify, but that’s part of the intrigue.
Bethesda volunteer Paul Bollwerk, who has volunteered weekly at the Henson site since 2009, said his most interesting discovery was a jewelry bead made from a seed. Using a screening tool, he glimpsed the tiny white bead about three millimeters in diameter among tiny fish bones and scales.
Bollwerk’s volunteer work is “an avenue to explore American history and culture in a very different way,” he said, “by finding it in the soil.”
Volunteers also dig test pits, lay out excavation units, backfill completed units, wash and label artifacts, and keep careful records.
“The 19th century is still there,” Michaud said. “Volunteers add an incredibly important dimension. They are not only willing to do physical labor. They bring a wealth of experience from their own lives and help us tell the story.”