Conrad Jay Bladey has a passion for archaeology and would like to share it with others. As director of a private, nonprofit organization that conducts archaeological surveys in Laurel, Bladey wants to involve homeowners in that northern Prince George's County city and other neighboring communities in the study of artifacts.
His group, called the City of Laurel Archaeological Survey, is sponsoring a course in what Bladey calls back-yard archaeology. Classes began last week and continue each Saturday through May 22 from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Laurel Armory. The fee is $7 for Laurel residents and $9 for nonresidents, he said, adding that there's no penalty for late enrollment.
Sometimes the lot a home occupies "has more value or historical worth than the home itself," Bladey said. "People don't often realize it until it's too late," he added, but a little knowledge about archeology can help.
"The record is beneath our feet," he said of the artifacts sometimes buried just inches under the topsoil. Homeowners often tell him about old marbles or pieces of brick they've unearthed in their yards, but they never remember exactly where they found the archaeological remains, he complained. He wants to help homeowners identify sites of possible historic worth and give them a plan to protect the valuable information in the land.
Those who enroll in his course will learn a system for recording the precise location and descriptions of the treasures they dig up: A series of stakes around the perimeter of a homesite divides the lot into small segments that can be mapped on paper, he said, then items discovered on the property can be recorded on the map.
Nails found in one area might reveal the earlier existence of a workshop or a porch, he said, while pieces of pottery or glass might mean that a home's kitchen once was located in a different part of the house. Bladey said he teaches his students when to move artifacts and when to leave them in the ground.
The careful gathering of such information would not only give the homeowners a greater awareness of the cultural or commercial activities that occurred previously on their land, but also would aid archeologists in understanding more about the metropolitan area. "There's a tremendous opportunity to help town planners," he said.
In addition, the more that people know about their homes, the better tey can care for them, he said, which could increase the values of their properties. He added that he hopes to persuade area Realtors of the plan's importance to homeowners.
Bladey recalled that an urban planner ("who should have known better") once leveled a back yard by removing soil instead of building it up. Preservationists later discovered that the neighborhood was historic, but the archaeological value of the homesite had been diminished along with the market price of the house, he said.
Bladey's approach to applied cultural archaeology is much more encompassing than historic preservation, "which preserves the house" and "looks at the tip of the iceberg" while essentially ignoring the site. "I am not a historic preservationist," he said.
Volunteer workers currently are working with Bladey at the site of the oldest house in Laurel. The group has dug scores of one-foot-square holes around the neglected property on the bank of the Patuxtent River where a circa 1830 two-family duplex still stands.
Workers are recovering "all the usual stuff" from the site, Bladey said, including gun flints, marbles, pottery shards, nails, window glass and mason jars. To describe the items in neutral terms, careful measurements are taken, in addition to plotting the finds on a map. It is important to record everything, Bladey said, even the location of a few daffodils in the middle of the overgrown site that might indicate the location of a garden planted decades in the past.
Many archeologists used to believe that only a few sites were needed for study, but lately they have begun "to realize that they need more information from the ground," Bladey said.
"When you integrate archeological work with current development, it's little work at all," he said, but "the real work comes when care has not been taken" by developers. "As a people, we are destroying the sites quickly," he added, noting that rapid urban construction during the last century has complicated the study of archaeology.
Bladey said the archaeological survey can foster "a conservationist lifestyle within the environment of material culture" by encouraging citizen participation in his simple resource development program. In view of the Reagan administration's cutbacks in government spending, the plan is a "new-federalist alternative to historic preservation," he said.
The archaeological survey's main purpose is "to integrate archeology into lifestyle and people," Bladey said. "Most people think archeological preservation is something you purchase," he said, but "the only way it can be done is as a lifestyle" of caring and understanding.
"In Europe, the idea has been integrated into the mainstream of life. There's no reason that the American people can't learn it," he said.
For more information about Laurel's archeological survey or the back-yard archaeology course, write to Conrad Bladey, 603 Montgomery Street, Apt. 3, Laurel, Md. 20707, or call 776-2854.