"WE'RE NOT A Williamsburg or even an Oxon Hill Farm," said Bob Shaw, the park naturalist at the Chesapeake Indian Lifeways Center in St. Mary's County, Md. "Don't come expecting actors dressed up in Indian costumes or a bunch of pottery shops. We're a back-to-nature kind of place."

Standing on the dirt floor of the center's Indian long house, which Shaw and others have been building for five years using stone, bone and wood tools, it would be hard to disagree.

The center is part of Chancellor's Point, a 66-acre natural history park at the state-owned Historic St. Mary's City, where English settlement in Maryland began. Visitors to Chancellor's Point can do everything from learn about the ways of Indians to swim or search for fossils along the St. Mary's River beach.

The focal point of the park is the long house, made of marsh grass and cedar posts, where visitors can watch Shaw and a crew of volunteers at work stripping bark for baskets or tanning deer hide. Everything is done according to the rhythm of the seasons -- just as the Piscataway Indians lived before the colonists arrived in 1634.

On our recent visit Shaw was stripping bark. Explaining that spring is the time when bark comes most easily off the trees, he offered his young onlookers a taste of the cedar sap that oozed from the newly stripped branch. My sons and daughter declined as Shaw took a lick. "I taste all the trees," he added with a grin.

They touched the softened deer hide on display, but recoiled just a bit when the naturalist told them how he smears dead animal brains on the hide to soften and preserve it.

The long-haired, blue-jean clad Shaw has to use his imagination in deciding what the Indians' tools and crafts must have looked like. "All the tools were biodegradable," he said. "The only things that have survived are the stone parts of tools, not one piece of clothing, not one basket. {The Indians} had a great relationship with the planet but it doesn't give us much to go on."

The plan for the dimensions of the long house was developed, Shaw explained, based on evidence gathered not far from Chancellor's Point during an archaeological dig. "You could see stains in the ground where the posts once were."

We wandered down to the nearby beach along the St. Mary's River, hunting for fossils along the way. We picked up some common seashells, but nothing as exotic as the 13-million-year-old camel shoulder that Shaw said was discovered in the area a few years ago. The Maryland state fossil (yes, said the naturalist, there's a state fossil) is the ecphora, a four-ribbed snail shell that also washes out of the bluffs in one area of the park and around to the beach.

Collecting common fossils, not artifacts or vertebrate remains, is allowed, said Shaw, but visitors should check with a staff person about the rules before just filling their pockets.

The narrow sandy strip is fine for napping, throwing pebbles in the water, crabbing or wading, although the jellyfish can get fierce in the summer, according to Shaw. If you prefer the woods, there are hiking trails, easy enough for preschoolers to negotiate, with covered areas among the trees.

Each fall the center celebrates Chesapeake Indian Culture Day, a chance for families to listen to Indian tales, watch volunteers making tools, pottery or baskets, try some archery, pound corn harvested from the center's garden and take a taste of oysters, blue fish, eels and rabbits. Some years local Indians also set up booths and sell native foods.

Although my children grimaced at the thought of downing some eel or rabbit as the Indians did 300 years ago, we didn't have any trouble convincing them to stop for some ribs and chicken at an authentic 20th-century barbecue shack on the way home.

Mary Anne Hess last wrote for Weekend about Baltimore's Babe Ruth Birthplace and Orioles Museum.