Shortly after Dr. William Ray Hepner and his wife Jean bought their 18th century house in Baltimore's Fells Point, they found a large hunk of metal in their earth-floored basement. It turned out to be the original 18th century iron lock for the front door.
The Hepners cleaned it up, had a new six-inch key made to fit it, and put it back on the front door.
Since then, digging up 17th and 18th century basements in Fells Point has become something of a weekend sport for amateur archeologists, and their funds - if not spectacular - are exciting residents and providing a touch of mystery to the neighborhood.
"People in the neighborhood are under the impression that we're digding for gold," said Bill Lynch, one of the weekend archeologists excavating the basement of one historic house in Fells Point. "Bust so far we've only found pennies."
The pennies he and his wife Muriel have found in the house built in 1765 by merchant Robert Long would make a coin collector envious. They include a 1787 penny minted by the state of Connecticut before the federal government started minting its own, and a 1793 federal penny, the first minted by the federal government.
Actually, digging in 18th century basements is a logical thing to do, according to Mary Wilkes, another amateur archeologist. "In the colonial period, there were no garbage collectors, so people would throw all the trash into the corners of the cellers," she said, "so when we can only dig on weekends, we head for the basement corners first."
And there are plenty of colonial-era cellers in Fells Points. Fells Point, one of the many communities that comprise Baltimore today, was the first fort of Baltimore in the 1600s. Local historians report that Capt. John Smith, whose legendary encounter with the Indian maiden Pocahontas made him famous, discovered the deep natural harbor on the Patapsco when he was exploring the Chesapeake Bay.
And at least one local history claims that William Fell, Quaker immigrant from England, was making off streets and lots for new homes on the point in the mid-1700s while Baltimore Towne - a mile-and-a-half away across a swamp, boasted a population of 30 families.
Mrs. Wilkes, public relations director for the Mid-Atlantic Business Journal, together with her husband Arnold and the Lynches are all members of the Archeological Society of Maryland, a group of amateurs that used to explore old Indian camping grounds around the state.
"As amateur archeolgists, we dig for fun and we dig for friendship," said Mrs. Wilkes. "You've got to have a good friend to say, 'Hey, come and dig in my clear,' and you also have to be a good friend to do it. But this is how we find out what life was all about then."
The Wilkeses and the Lynches dug for several weekends in one Fells Point basement that has been part of a bar almost continuously since 1790. There they unearthed a number of toy tin horses two inches high and painted bright red, white and blue, as well as old shoes and pipe bowls.
"The old innkeepers and bartenders used to sell bowls of tobacco across the bar," said George Goeller, who bought the building five years ago. "After the smoker was finished, he would hand the bowl back to the bartender, and he'd break of part of the stem. When someone else wanted a smoke, he would refill the bowl. When the stem got too short, they'd throw the bowl away."
But perhaps the most mysterious find to date was made by the Hepners, who had bought their house in 1967 because of Fells Points proximity to Dr. Hepner's practice as a pediatrician at the University of Maryland's hospital.
After they found the front door's iron lock, they hired a contractor to dig out the rest of the basement. The contractor rigged up a conveyor belt to haul out the dirt, and Jean Hepner can recall "scrambling as fast as I could through the material (being hauled up) feeling the lumps, and brushing them off to see what they were, and stuffing everything into my pockets."
"I was looking for ceramic and metal," she said. "Then all these bones appeared. I didn't realize what it was until long bones came up and they looked human. Then a jawbone appeared."
When she told the workmen about it they refused to go into the basement anymore. "They thought it was haunted," she said. The identity of the person whose bones were found in the Hapner basement was never learned, and no further excavation was ever undertaken. City officials said that the Hepners must have a concrete basement if they were allowed to continue to live in their home, so the earthen floor was buried under a thick layer of concrete, she said.