Research Trip: St. Mary’s City Bound

Posted by on Sep 9, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 2 Comments

Between a vacation and moving, the past couple of months have had me living out of a suitcase pretty regularly; the coming few months are no different. While my home base of operations for writing the dissertation has me in Williamsburg, the location of my data is in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, in the bowels of the Historic St. Mary’s City Research Division’s basement. Over the next few months, I will be spending my weeks working at HSMC in their lab, while making the 3 hour drive back home to Williamsburg on weekends. Not to mention, I’ll be staying with my grandmother, who lives an additional half hour away from HSMC. Needless to say, my mini van and I will be spending some quality time together (please feel free to leave recommendations for favorite travel music and audio books in the comments).

I am currently writing this from my “new” desk in the research division, located in a converted farm house that has been a research home to archaeologists and historians for around 30 years. This includes some legendary figures such as archaeologists George Miller and Garry Wheeler Stone, and Chesapeake historians Lois Carr and Russell Menard. Under the current direction of Henry Miller, who is on my committee, the primary research focus is the 17th-century occupation of St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first capitol. My work, however, focuses on the 19th-century component, and the next couple of months will be spent establishing a data set to use in my dissertation analysis.

Most of the work I have already completed has looked at the history, physical landscape, and architecture of the site and buildings on the 19th century plantation, as well as the earlier history of the landscape of preceding plantations in the area. While these are all important lines of evidence, there is still a significant amount of artifact data that needs to be completed.

As you can imagine, after the proper excavation of artifacts, compiling them into workable and usable data sets is the most important, and one of the more difficult, parts of doing archaeological research. It is also the part that I have the least amount of experience doing. Early on, the process will be straight forward. I need to know what it is I have: what types of artifacts, what forms, styles, types, and so on? What type of, if any, faunal record exists? Where are these artifact assemblages located in space? These questions are important because they can determine what types of analytical questions I can ask about the data (It’s hard to ask about diet without a faunal record, for example).

This project presents some unique challenges, as well, and are primarily related to stratigraphy. Each of the two quarters have complicated stratigraphy for two different reasons. At the duplex quarter, the stratigraphy is important because a large part of my project rests on differentiating between before and after emancipation, and the duplex was occupied during both periods. In order to make comparisons about ways of life before and after this period, I need to be able to see if I can determine any differences in strata that may coincide with these changes.

A second challenge is related to the single quarter. Although not occupied much beyond 1865 as a living space, this quarter stood on top of the location of the 17th century printhouse that had fallen into ruin when St. Mary’s City was abandoned. This will make it more difficult to distinguish between what belongs to what. Again, noting what strata are related to what period will be important in the analysis. This is particularly important because it would not be unexpected to find that 19th century residents were using materials from the abandoned 17th century city. Making sure I get the stratigraphy right will make sure that such claims could, in fact, be validated.

Regardless, I am looking forward to the work, and I am lucky to have a supportive network here at HSMC and the neighboring St. Mary’s College of Maryland. In addition to Dr. Miller, the entire research staff is on hand, many of whom took part in the excavation of this data and who are a tremendous resource (they also enjoy snagging a couple brews at the local watering hole now and then). Hopefully, I will be chiming in online about some of the artifacts, and other interesting bits about my research over the next couple of months!

Photo: the footprint of the single quarter and the 17th century printhouse, courtesy of Historic St. Mary’s City.


  1. Nicolas Laracuente
    September 9, 2010

    depending on the time of day I usually listen to NPR, only if the news, all things considered, or car talk is on though.

  2. Phillip Spencer
    September 10, 2010

    That's alright. I turned out to be a cart teacher that just roams around school all day.


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