Drinking Jugs Point the Way to an Archaeological Find

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

When searching for 17th-century courthouses, it might be good to keep in mind spirits -- the alcoholic, not ghostly, kind.

Back then, around the 1670s, it seems councilmen and judges spent a fair amount of their time swilling liquor, so remnants of their wine bottles and beer tankards are easy to find. In fact, it was pieces of those stone and glass vessels that led a team of archaeologists to discover the original Charles County courthouse, the oldest government building in Maryland whose remnants could never be located -- until now.

"Oh, they drank at night when they were sitting around talking about the day, they drank on breaks and they might even have been doing it when they were in court," said Julia King, an anthropology professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland who led a group of students in searching for the courthouse. "You can see pieces of their glasses everywhere you turn."

On Thursday, those finds were marked with small flags, creating a sea of fluttering orange markers in the soybean field that makes up the front yard of a farmhouse on the southern outskirts of La Plata. When King and her students began finding dozens of shards of stoneware, pottery and glass in one small area, they knew they had found the courthouse.

The seemingly simple task of finding the courthouse had taken almost 75 years, ever since a group of county officials launched a search around the time of Maryland's 300th anniversary. Another group tried during the county's own 300th anniversary celebration 24 years later.

The Maryland State Archives' Web site deemed the courthouse "impossible to locate." Even the county tourism Web site says Charles's first courthouse was built in 1727.

"They gave up!" exclaimed Mike Sullivan, a developer and amateur historian who paid for the bulk of the roughly $40,000 search effort. "They said it was impossible and they just gave up!"

The team Sullivan assembled, which included a genealogist and a surveyor as well as King, had a few major advantages on their predecessors, most notably technology. The surveyor, Kevin Norris, used a Global Positioning System device to align historic land deeds with current geography, concluding that the courthouse could be anywhere within a 150-acre tract called Moore's Lodge along Springhill Newtown Road. From that point, King and her students took to the field, digging test pits to search for artifacts that might indicate a building once stood on the site.

The group's biggest aid, though, was quite simple: a 1697 plat drawing depicting the three-acre parcel that was home to the courthouse, stocks, inn and tavern. Long before the courthouse site was located, it became iconic through the drawing, which King said is significant enough to be included in every book on Maryland's history. Even St. Mary's City, the collection of re-created 17th-century buildings that sits at the site of Maryland's first capital, was built based on the Charles plat.

"There are no buildings in Maryland or Virginia from the 17th century that survive, so this is as close as we get to seeing how tens of thousands of colonists lived their lives," said King, who specializes in the Colonial history of Maryland.

But over the past several days, she and her students have gotten even closer, sifting endless piles of dirt through screens to see what artifacts might be hiding there. Along with the steady stream of broken drinking jugs, they've found pieces of windowpanes and brick as well as a few broken tobacco pipes. The torrential rains of the past week brought many of the items to the surface, making them easier to spot.

St. Mary's College student Scott Tucker, 24, said he experienced "pure delight" when the group found the remnants of the courthouse. After days of trudging through a wheat field nearby and finding no signs of life, he was relieved to see the first evidence of success.

"Oh, last week all we were wishing for was to stumble on the courthouse," Tucker said.

As King and her students tromped around, they flattened soybean sprouts on Dale and Barbara Howell's land, which also includes their family home. King said the Howells and the farmer who rents their fields have been very gracious about allowing them to disturb the crops in the name of discovering history.

In fact, Barbara Howell said she was never concerned about the archaeologists damaging her land, but she had no idea it held any special value.

"They called to say the county's first courthouse might have been right by our house, and I said, 'Are you sure?' " Howell said at a county commissioners meeting where King and Sullivan discussed the project. "I didn't really believe it at first."

Now that the long search has ended in Howell's front yard, King and her team will continue searching for other artifacts in the area. They will also need to contact the state archives and local government about changing those out-of-date Web sites, Sullivan said.

"Last weekend I went home and just laid there thinking, 'Oh, where is it? Why can't I find it?' " King said. "Now it's sort of anticlimactic; the world goes on. But I guess I don't have to obsess over it this weekend."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company