Today, when folks from far and wide travel to Popes Creek Road in Charles County to eat oysters, crabs and other seafood at Capt. Billy's and Robertson's crab houses, they are quite likely retracing the steps of ancient people.
Three thousand years ago, the prehistoric Native Americans of the region apparently trekked to just about the same spot to eat oysters they collected from the Potomac River.
Archaeological information about Popes Creek is newly available to the public thanks to Rebecca Newlan, whose analysis of artifacts collected 14 years ago has shed light on a site called Popes Creek West. Newlan, of Temple Hills, graduated from George Washington University this year and the site is the subject of her senior archaeology thesis.
The 1985 excavation was carried out by the Archaeology Society of Maryland, an amateur organization, with some help from the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT). Though researchers found stone tools, pottery and ancient oyster shells, no one analyzed or catalogued the materials discovered. The artifacts sat unexamined in a repository, according to Gary Shaffer, a preservation officer at the MHT.
For the last two years, Shaffer has sought undergraduate and graduate students interested in studying Popes Creek West and the many other Maryland archaeological sites whose artifacts have gone unclassified. Newlan, 22, is the first to take up his offer.
Archaeological digs are of little use if their results are never published, Shaffer said.
"It's a waste of scarce resources," Shaffer said. "There should be a lot of consideration about whether further excavations take place until reports are written up to publish information about archaeological work that's already been done."
Popes Creek West, now on private property, was once an oyster shell midden--essentially a refuse heap for oyster shells. According to Newlan, the midden was in heavy use from the later archaic period to the early middle woodland period of prehistory, roughly from 5,000 years ago to about 2,000 years ago.
Artifacts that would indicate use of the site after the early middle woodland period are missing--probably, Newlan believes, because they were disturbed by a kiln set up there in historic times to make lime from discarded oyster shells.
Newlan was able to date the materials that excavators found by comparing tools and pottery with known artifacts from other sites.
Popes Creek West was one of Maryland's largest oyster shell middens, said Newlan, who theorizes that it was a popular site because it was at the uppermost limit of the oysters' habitat, making it the nearest location for oyster harvesters traveling south.
Newlan was most intrigued, she said, by some of the stone tools--quartz projectile points--found at Popes Creek, the type of discovery that makes archaeology come alive for her.
"I have a lot of respect for the Native Americans who made these quartz projectile points, because quartz is such a tough material to make something out of," Newlan said. "It's absolutely fascinating to me to actually hold a tool or a pottery shard that was used by a Native American so many years ago."
Newlan's report will be available to other researchers at the MHT library, Shaffer said.
Shaffer and Nancy Benco, Newlan's adviser at George Washington, both hope more students will focus their research on the collections available from the MHT.
"Archaeology in general is going to try to go back to these older collections and interpret or reinterpret them," Benco said. "It's a very big issue."