M. Lee Preston Jr.

M. Lee Preston Jr., of West Friendship, is the author of "Archaelogy in Howard County and Beyond: What I've Learned in 40 Years About Its People and Sites." The Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City is a site where he's conducted extensive work. (photo by Sarah Pastrana / April 2, 2012)

He may not sport a fedora on his head or a bullwhip on his belt, but Lee Preston can be recognized by the ARKLOGIST license plate on his car. And by a book that might be tucked under his arm: “Archaeology in Howard County and Beyond: What I’ve learned in 40 Years about its People and Sites,” written by the man himself.

Preston’s opus was published last year under his full name, M. Lee Preston Jr., for the James and Anne Robinson Foundation (of the new Robinson Nature Center in Columbia), which partnered with him in publishing it and receives all profits from its sale. But as the title indicates, the tale has been in the works for four decades, ever since Preston arrived at Glenelg High School in 1970 to replace the designer of the county’s first cultural anthropology course, who resigned before ever teaching it.

Unlike Indiana Jones, the quest for relics didn’t run in Preston’s family, but he did have a mentor, Dr. Roland “Mac” McDaniel. At prehistoric sites in Loudoun County, Va., the American University-trained archaeologist taught the greenhorn, whose degree was in education, to differentiate between a natural stone and a stone tool, and how to identify the broken sections of projectile points and the byproducts or flakes driven off the stone core.

Once Preston was trained, there was no need to cross state lines; McDaniel encouraged him to explore sites in Howard County. By now, 288 sites here are registered with the state, according to Preston. Sixty percent of those are prehistoric; that is, dating before written records, which in the United States means Native American.

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Reconstructing history

Native Americans, as well as colonial explorers, wealthy planters and their slaves, ordinary farmers and tradesmen, and daughters of the moneyed elite from across the 19th-century nation and even Europe have left their marks and relics hereabouts.

“There are at least 12,000 years of history in Howard County,” the 68-year-old West Friendship resident points out in his book. But only in 1980 was a major site identified that was not scheduled for development, and thus could be examined at some length, and it was brought to light by one of Preston’s students.

In 1980, during one of the periodic decreases in the water level of Triadelphia Reservoir, student Mark Wallace got permission for the class to conduct a surface survey of an exposed area of shore.

Preston said he was pleasantly surprised when 83 artifacts were unearthed at the site on the first day alone. “We collected biface projectile points, scrapers, and flakes of rhyolite, quartz, quartzite and chert from the surface, and hundreds more were observable to the naked eye with more probably hiding under a thin layer of silt,” Preston recalls.

The exposed area of shore, which had jutted out above the Patuxent River before Brighton Dam was constructed in 1943, was officially designated as the Wallace site and, based on the numbers and ages of artifacts discovered, was concluded to be an ancient site for processing stones into projectile points. It was visited by Native Americans for 10,000 years, and by Preston and students a number of times when available due to droughts and maintenance during the 1980s and ’90s.

When asked by newbies in the field whether they can keep what they find, Preston responds, “The memories, yes; the artifacts, no” -- otherwise, how is each piece of history to be fitted into the puzzle of our past?

“To this day, I do not know the total number of artifacts retrieved,” he writes. Estimated to be at least 15,000, they remain in storage at Mt. Ida, a historic house now serving as shared headquarters of the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute and Historic Ellicott City Inc. “My goal is to process them once this book is finished. I know the artifacts are patiently awaiting further study,” adds the now-retired teacher.

During a career circulating among county schools -- Glenelg to Atholton and River Hill high schools as well as Howard Community College -- Preston continued to travel through time as well as space at archaeological sites. He’s explored the Triadelphia Reservoir, sites in Columbia (including his own “CSI experience,” involving the discovery of human bones on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church of Howard County), the site of Simpsonville and its mill (where he became involved due to impending highway construction), the Ellicott City ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, Glenwood’s Longwood estate, and Woodstock’s Mt. Pleasant Farm, which is now the home of the Howard County Conservancy.

Institute is treasure trove

Today Preston continues to serve as president of the Upper Patuxent Archaeology Group (UPAG), of which he was one of the founders in 1978, and vice president of the Friends of Patapsco Female Institute.

Considering its checkered career, beginning in 1837 as an elite academy for young ladies, then private home, country hotel, convalescent hospital, summer theater, nursing home, teen hangout and now home stage of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, nothing found at the Patapsco Female Institute should come as much of a surprise.

During a dig there in 1994, Preston and his company of volunteers went straight to the dump, aka the institute’s kitchen midden. The rest is, well, history.  

The flashiest artifacts discovered are a pair of gold and turquoise jeweled ornaments and a Federal Period button from theU.S. Naval Academy, but the majority are objects like clay pipe pieces, shards of glass and pottery, buttons, bone toothbrushes and slate pencils.

In four years of excavation, no fewer than 30,000 artifacts were recovered; make that 98,000 (most post-Institute era) over the 23 years of fieldwork, which included a public archaeology outreach program. Such digging also uncovered building footprints, path systems and drains. 

Just like PFI’s famed educator-principal, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, anything Preston taught he wanted to be hands-on, and archaeology is especially amenable to the practice of learning by doing.