Did you hear about the two tobacco traders having a brew down at the tavern? One of them has words with a transient, probably a sailor. Someone uses the Lord's name in vain, and suddenly fists--and ham bones, and pottery--are flying. "Out, the lot of ye," the proprietor bellows. Minutes later, nothing's left of the brawl. The whole mess has been tossed down the stairs into the cellar.

At least that's one possibility. The details of what happened in Rumney's Tavern some 300 years ago are buried beneath our feet here across the South River from Annapolis.

"This isn't just general trash thrown outside," says archaeologist Lisa Plumley, gesturing at unearthed wine bottles and crockery. "This is, someone had a bad Saturday night, a table got upended and they broke a few dishes."

Plumley is standing in the tavern's cellar, now just a hole in the ground covered by a weatherproof tent. The rest of London Town--a victim of 18th-century political maneuverings and economic downturns--is also mainly underground.

Begun in 1683, London was a thriving seaport where planters met the merchants and sailors of the tobacco trade. Anne Arundel County's first seat of government, it was the site of a ferry crossing on a major north-south thoroughfare of Colonial America--by any measure, a happening place.

But decades before the Revolution, new laws shifted tobacco trading to Annapolis and elsewhere. Warehouses and wharves changed hands and fell into disrepair. Carpenter William Brown's 1760s brick home later became a poorhouse, which it remained until 1965, its neighbors and surroundings forgotten.

So why are two dozen of us sitting here on bales of hay, listening to Plumley, of Anne Arundel's Lost Towns Project, reconstruct a Colonial bar brawl? We're helping, in a small but important way, to bring London back to life.

"No town plan survived, so we're guessing what was here," says Al Luckenbach, the county archaeologist. "This town is like a jigsaw puzzle that's missing a bunch of pieces."

For five years, Luckenbach and his colleagues have carefully worked to put the pieces back together. One Saturday a month, the public is invited to join them in sorting through dirt from five-foot-square segments of the town center.

The top layer is called plowed soil because it's been mixed up over generations by farmers' plows. Anything might turn up in here, from 300-year-old ceramics to yesterday's candy wrapper.

Onto makeshift screens, Lost Towns staffers dump buckets of plowed soil--the top layer of soil, its contents plowed by generations of farmers into an archaeological grab bag that spans 300 years or more. There we shake out any grasses and paw through the rest, looking for pieces of the past.

I hold up a dark, smooth something about an inch long. "That's part of an 18th-century wine bottle," Luckenbach says. "See how thick it is?" And, pointing to a darker blob: "That's just coal ash. It didn't burn too well, and this is what's left."

Though few of us volunteers have been on a dig before, we quickly pick up the basics. Coal ash is worthless, but bits of brick are good. Even an oyster-shell hinge can suggest who was eating oysters. Don't give up on a screen too quickly; the smallest fragments may be useful.

Six-year-old Sierra Pfeifer of Pasadena, Md., is poking intently through the dirt. "What's this thing?" she asks. "Is this a plate?"

Assistant director Jim Gibb squats beside the girl and brushes the bit clean. It is indeed part of a plate--green-edged creamware, probably from the tavern. It goes into the plastic bag hanging near her screen.

Sierra's grandmother, Kay Pfeifer, likes the fact that getting messy can be educational. "This gets the kids to think historically," she says. "When they learn about this period in social studies, it'll make more sense."

Every hour or so during the dig, a Lost Towns archaeologist takes some of us aside to put our work in context. One outlines the history of London Town; another explains how the scientists document their findings and what will happen to the artifacts we unearth today.

A fraction of a pipe stem can yield clues about the time period it was used. The size of a pig bone might indicate that people were eating younger animals, which in turn suggests a bad year. The bags are labeled by the section of dirt they come from, and later staff and volunteers will wash, sort and weigh the contents. Concentrations of items can help show where a building used to be. Brick can pinpoint a fireplace; trash might locate the edge of a building because people would throw their junk out the doors and windows.

But not everything turned up is trash, Luckenbach says: "We've had Spanish Colonial coins, buttons from the War of 1812, octagonal cuff links from the French and Indian War" that were inscribed: "Success to the British fleet."

Using mostly land records and letters, Lost Towns workers try to connect artifacts to what's known about old London. Bit by bit, they're figuring out who lived where or just when a business--like Rumney's Tavern--was in operation. Eventually, the London Town Foundation hopes to re-create these buildings exactly where they once stood.

But Sylvie Perkins of Rockville is focused on the present moment, her curls flying with each shake of her screen. "Look, a nail! I found a nail!" she shouts.

Luckenbach takes a look at the nail and then shows off the shiny gold ring on his little finger. Earlier this morning, a volunteer lost his wedding band. When Luckenbach stuck his hand in a glove after lunch, there it was.

"See," he says, grinning, "you never know what'll turn up at a dig."

GETTING THERE: London Town is about an hour from the Beltway. Take U.S. 50 east to Route 665 (Exit 22). Exit at Route 2 south, go over the South River Bridge and turn left six-tenths of a mile later onto Mayo Road. Go eight-tenths of a mile to a left on Londontown Road. The site is about a mile in.

BEING THERE: The last two public digs this year are this Saturday and Oct. 16, 9 to 2. The dig is free; no experience is necessary.

WHERE TO STAY: If you want to make a weekend of it, Historic Inns of Annapolis continues the period theme. Through Sept. 30, two people can stay Friday and Saturday night for $430--including taxes, a candlelight dinner at the Treaty of Paris restaurant, brunch at the Maryland Inn and chilled champagne on arrival. Call 1-800-847-8882, or see www.annapolisinns.com/main.html. A less pricey alternative: Days Inn Historic Annapolis, at $99 a night. Call 1-800-638-5179.

WHERE TO EAT: London Town workers bring a picnic lunch or drive four minutes to Edgewater for Hayman's Crab House, Edgewater Restaurant, Adam's Ribs or Ledo Pizza.

DETAILS: Contact the London Town Foundation at 410-222-1919.WAYS & MEANS