Squatting in a 4-by-5-foot dirt pit, the former site of a backyard privy, University of Maryland students Justin Uehlein and Sophia Chang carefully scrape deeper into the fine, brown soil of Annapolis.
They are looking for glass, pottery, discarded household goods — anything that will help their archaeological team understand how a middle-class African American family fared here during the Civil War and beyond.
Bit by bit, the story of a family is excavated. A toothbrush missing its bristles, broken ceramic plates, tiny painted figurines, a carved pipe bowl, a domino: Those are among the 10,000 items painstakingly retrieved from the privy, a dirt kitchen floor and a trash pile.
“What we’re trying to do is make an African American history of Annapolis out of archaeology,” said Mark P. Leone, the U-Md. professor who directs the 30-year-old Archaeology in Annapolis program.
History books often overlook ordinary people. Maps go only so far, and oral traditions sometimes skip uncomfortable episodes that families would rather forget.
But given a trowel and patience, anthropologists, archaeologists and other historical scientists can find, identify and analyze artifacts that help build a more complete report. It’s working science and history, filling in gaps and synthesizing the known and unknown.
The program has excavated Annapolis historic sites and conducted an extensive project at the Wye House, the plantation where Frederick Douglass lived as a slave.
But this summer, the most exciting developments have been at the James Holliday House, in the shadow of the Capitol dome on a gentrified street that was home to blacks in the 19th century.
The house was built between 1784 and 1819 and was bought in 1850 by one of the first African Americans to work at the U.S. Naval Academy. Holliday, born a slave in 1809 and freed 10 years later, was hired as a messenger for the superintendent when the Naval Academy moved to Annapolis. Five years later, he bought the middle-class brick home, and the house, with only a small addition in the back, has been occupied by the same family ever since.
“We’re hoping to better understand how this family fits into Annapolis,” said Kathryn Deeley, a Maryland doctoral student who co-directs the site work and lab analysis. “James Holliday worked at the Naval Academy for about 40 years, and his position was one of relative importance, especially in the African American community.”
That task has been helped by Holliday’s great-great-granddaughter, who invited the team to do the excavation and who periodically conveys family stories that help students understand what they see.
“I think this is the first time in Annapolis where we could follow a site from when it was built, to who lived here, to the current homeowner,” said Amanda Tang, a doctoral student and an associate director of U-Md.’s Field School in Urban Archaeology.
One example of their findings is how the Hollidays set their table. The dishes, or at least the fragments that survive, were stylish, though mismatched. Deeley said it was “a conscious choice to acquire dishes in small quantities rather than in matching sets.”
The up-to-date patterns demonstrated the family’s social standing, she said, thought it’s unclear whether the mismatch reflected a preference for variety at the table or if it was a function of being thrifty by buying dishes in small quantities.
The family consumed little alcohol, a finding based on the relative lack of discarded liquor bottles. But the students discovered that the Hollidays drank a lot of brand-name mineral water, which was a common home remedy for people who had little access to formal medicine.
A related nearby site, the Pinkney House, which was owned by a wealthy black landlord and rented out for many years, turns up similar artifacts. Jocelyn Knauf, a doctoral student and an associate director of the Field School, said that the site offers insight into urban life.
“We’re really interested in how the use of space might have changed,” she said, “how the material culture has changed and how small artifacts reflected identity.”
The fieldwork, which is part of the three-year project, demands intellect, imagination and immersion in the detritus of the past. The excavation pits are hot, damp and small; in a dark, dirt-floor basement kitchen with a head-smacking entrance, the students probe, sift and sort through what others might ignore.
The payoff is thrilling. The students have found straight pins, evidence that women in the family were dressmakers. They discovered a brown bottle from the post-Prohibition era bearing the warning: “Federal law forbids sale or resale of this bottle.”
A metal toy soldier they spotted has tentatively been dated to the 1890s; a slate pencil worn down to its nub and a handful of clay marbles speak of games played in free time.
“The most exciting thing found so far has been the recovery of what appears to be a small-caliber handgun,” wrote one of the students in the project’s blog, blog.umd.edu/aia.
“The object is heavily rusted but distinguishing thing[s] such as the barrel, trigger guard, and hammer can be seen. . . . The discovery of the gun did cause a great deal of excitement for all of us at the field school and was a reminder that the unexpected is always one trowel full of dirt away.”