Bits of the past

Pieces of St. Mary's are returned for a visit in a temporary exhibit

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

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Staff photos by REID SILVERMAN
Patricia Samford of Lexington Park, director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab in St. Leonard, discusses the significance of some of the items included in a temporary archaeological exhibit now on display at the Lexington Park library.

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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN
This collection of arrowheads and other stone tools found at a tidal marsh area along the St. Mary's River, believed to be a seasonal camp for Native Americans as long as 3,000 years ago, is part of the temporary archaeological exhibit at Lexington Park library.

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Items collected around Notley Hall, a historic site in Chaptico, are among the items on display in the temporary exhibit.

They are mostly just bits and pieces of things — rocks, broken pottery, fragments of old tools — all collected in St. Mary's County.

But the items included in the County Archaeology Collections Exhibit, or CACE, at Lexington Park library since early February each tell a story about St. Mary's, according to Patricia Samford of Lexington Park. Samford is director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab in St. Leonard, where the items are normally stored.

Samford visited the exhibit at the library one morning last month and told some of those stories.

"Everyone has seen arrowheads," she said, pointing out a small collection of arrowheads collected from a tidal marsh area along the St. Mary's River, believed to be a seasonal camp for Native Americans as long as 3,000 years ago. "But these are stone tools. You can look at blood residue analysis to discover what was hunted and killed with them."

From testing those arrowheads, archaeologists know that Native Americans were hunting deer and rabbits at that camp. It's just one more bit of information that gives a more concrete picture of past human activity in St. Mary's.

"There's amazing things that can be done," Samford said, referring to the growing number of ways objects can be tested to illuminate their history. "DNA testing has really opened up a whole new realm in archaeology."

The display near the circulation desk at the library will be in place through August, and focuses on objects from three archaeological sites in St. Mary's. In addition to the Native American camp, there are items found at a slave cabin on Sotterley Plantation in Hollywood and at Notley Hall, a colonial-era plantation in Chaptico.

Samford pulled out one of the exhibits' display drawers to tell a story about items found at Sotterley. "This is a particularly interesting group of objects," she said, pointing to a small homemade brick, an arrowhead and several chunks of wood.

The items were all found at the threshold of a door to the slave cabin. Samford said the items were all part of a good luck charm or an effort to keep evil spirits out of the home.

"This is something we often see at African-American sites," she said.

Workers building the cabin would dig a hole at the threshold, place a brick in the hole, putting an arrowhead on top and then turn a wooden bucket over the top, before filling in the hole, Samford said.

Samford then pulled out the drawer of items found at the Notley Hall site. She pointed out the iron stirrup, an indicator that the residents were using horses for riding, not just farm work — a potential indicator of wealth. And, in fact, the early owners of the property were well-off, she said. "He was one of the wealthy planters in St. Mary's," Samford said, noting that John Notley was known to use a decorated walking stick with a pewter head, a sure sign of wealth at that time.

She pointed out a bone needle case with a tiny lid that was found at Notley. "It's in perfect shape," Samford said.

The exhibit, made up of about 100 items native to St. Mary's County, is designed to give countians more access to their history and to "let people know about the" MAC Lab, which is the state's repository for approximately 8 million objects.

The temporary exhibit was made possible by a $27,623 grant from the Department of Interior, National Park Service through the Preserve America grant program. The grant allowed the MAC Lab to create two public exhibitions designed to bring archaeological objects held at the lab back to their counties of origin. The first exhibit created through this grant was for St. Mary's County. The second will be for Washington County, in northwestern Maryland, which is celebrating its centennial this year.

As part of this project, objects excavated in St. Mary's and Washington counties are being brought out of storage into public view, along with interpretive materials.

"These exhibits provide us with a wonderful opportunity to showcase some of the state's most important archaeological sites," Samford said in a statement.

Terri Tresp, branch manager of the Lexington Park library branch, says that the St. Mary's exhibit has been drawing plenty of attention from library patrons since it was set up in early February. "It seems very popular," Tresp said. "People of all ages stop and take a look at it. Everyone is opening the drawers."

And while all ages are drawn to the exhibit, two programs related to the exhibit are planned specifically for children this summer, one near the beginning of summer and one near the end, according to Tresp.

In some ways, the two temporary exhibits — one in St. Mary's County and the other to be set up in June in Washington County — are pilot projects for the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, which would like to eventually create a statewide network of these kinds of exhibits, Samford said.

The lab is looking for ways to make the millions of items stored at its facility more accessible to the public. People may call the lab located at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard and make an appointment to view some of the stored items and every month the lab hosts open tours where reservations aren't necessary, but the hope is to bring these state treasures closer by setting up exhibits at free-entry sites in each county.

"We want people to know archaeology is a really interesting way to learn about their county's past," Samford said.

If you want to go

The County Archaeology Collections Exhibit will be at the Lexington Park library through August. A reception will be held March 15 at 2 p.m. at the library. The reception is free and open to the public. Two related workshops for children will be offered this summer at the library. For more information, call the library at 301-863-8188.

The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory is located at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard. For tour information, call 410-586-8562 or see