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May 29, 2008

Press Release:

Written By Karen Gardner
News-Post Staff

BUCKEYSTOWN -- Long before there was a housing development here, there was a settlement of people who stayed probably no more than a couple of decades.
The Archeological Society of Maryland is excavating the story of those people through mounds of dirt. Charles Hall, the state archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust, is coordinating the dig that includes volunteers and professionals.

The dig, at the Bishop Claggett Center south of Buckeystown, started last Friday and will conclude Monday. Volunteers can come for any or all 11 days the archaeologist are at the site.

The site is on undulating land sculpted during the last Ice Age. Up a steep hill is the Claggett Center and in another direction is a new housing development.

On Wednesday, day six, 13 people came to help uncover the past, one pot shard at a time. That past is some 750 years ago, about 1260 A.D., give or take a hundred years.

Amateur archaeologists -- as many as 27 from 12-year-olds to senior citizens -- have come out to learn about the societies that occupied the site.

They scrape pits with hoes and trowels, looking for bits of ceramics, arrowheads and spear points. The clay-like soil, just a few yards from the Monocacy River, has few rocks, so many of the objects unearthed are artifacts.

The site

The people who occupied the site in 1260 lived in the late Woodland age, 400 years before Europeans descended upon North America. They were dubbed the Mason's Island settlers, named for an island in the Potomac.

"The tribes here moved around a lot," Hall said. "These folks' ancestors were mobile."

The Mason's Island clan, about 25 to 30 people strong, probably grew corn, beans and squash. Wild game would have made up the rest of their diet.

"We don't know what happened to those people," Hall said.

Another group moved in about 100 years later. archaeologist call this group the Montgomery Complex. The Mason Island people made pottery out of crushed limestone, while the Montgomery people fashioned pottery out of crushed quartz.

The Montgomery people may be the predecessors of the Piscataway Indians, a tribe that lived along the southern Potomac River when Europeans arrived, but Hall said that's debated by archaeologist.

"People always want to know what tribe is this, and we can't do that," he said. "Now we define ourselves in relation to others. Then we defined ourselves as ourselves."

Calvin Swomley, of Buckeystown, discovered the site in 1964. He mapped 28 sites that may have contained settlements and collected boxes of artifacts.

Each summer, the Archeological Society of Maryland chooses a site for an 11-day dig. This is the second year for the Claggett Center site.

This year's goal is to dig deeper into the story of the Mason Island settlers.

Last year, participants had to use shovels. This year, Hall was able to get a Bobcat to dig pits, and participants had nice, neat, 2 meters by 2 meters rectangles in which to dig.

Barry Phelps of Frederick hoed one of the pits Wednesday. The dirt he gathered -- full of spear points, spear flakes and bits of bone -- would be shaken through screens. The artifacts will be cleaned, labeled in bags and taken to labs.

The evidence is of more than cooking and eating.

"These folks had gardens," Hall said. "They wove textiles out of natural fibers and made elaborate pottery."

Although textiles didn't survive, cordage textiles were used to make impressions on the pottery, and the impressions can clearly be seen.

The settlement

The Mason Island settlers lived in small houses, more like sleeping huts, which were not barricaded. That was in contrast to a later group, the Kaiser Complex, which appear to have invaded their way east along the Potomac from the Monongahela River.

The Kaiser clan, which lived on the Monocacy site in about 1400, used pottery made of crushed river mussel shells mixed with clay. This different pottery, along with evidence that their village was barricaded, has led archaeologist to believe the Kaiser group possibly pushed the Montgomery settlers out.

"This region was so rich in terms of hunting and foraging," said Joe Dent, an American University archaeology professor who organized the dig with Hall.

The Mason Island settlers may have lived along the Monocacy during the summer growing season and left to hunt for food in the winter.

One of their cooking sites dated to 1260 using radiocarbon dating. The shift from a hunter-gatherer existence to one that depended on farming changed the way we live, Dent said.

"Farming takes a lot of labor," he said. "Anybody can weed. With farming, populations become larger, and you need a labor force."

The shift to farming also meant less leisure time. The last hunter-gatherer societies, recorded in the 1950s and '60s, worked about 15 hours a week, Hall said. That left more time for storytelling, for pottery making and other artistic pursuits.

Rivers served as pathways for early Americans, Hall said, so it's not surprising that a settlement rich in artifacts would be found just a few yards from the Monocacy.

In 1260, the trees that covered the rich land beneath would have been girdled, with a ring of bark removed. Fallen trees would remain, and planting would be done around the trees.

"It would have been a really surreal-looking landscape," Dent said.

One of the excavated sites contained dark circles, indicating post holes. Those would have anchored either a cooking site or a sleeping hut.

Arrowheads, spear points and knife points are common. Some were made of locally-gathered quartz, but others are rhyolite, a darker stone from the Catoctin Mountains.

The excavators

Benton Watson of New Windsor is taking vacation time from work to dig. "I find it very interesting, who was here before us," he said.

George Evans of Walkersville is retired. Archaeology is his hobby. He also participates in digs at Monocacy National Battlefield and in Jamestown, Va. He was working Wednesday with Maxine Grabill, of Libertytown. They are members of the Monocacy Archeological Society, which is well represented on this year's dig.

Also helping is Elizabeth Moore, curator of archeology for the State Museum of Natural History in Virginia and once a student of Dent's, who specializes in bone history. She is able to determine most of what people ate. The Mason Island settlers ate mostly deer and turtle, and a bit of wild turkey.

Next year's field session will likely go elsewhere, although Hall said archaeologist may return in 10 or 20 years. By then, better tools and technology may reveal more of the story of the Mason Island Complex.

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