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Archaeologist and educator Lee Preston pieces together Howard County's past

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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.

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.

To that end, he created his own dig site on Atholton High School grounds, including a firepit/ash oven for cooking food and baking clay pots. Later, he would develop an archaeology camp at Patapsco Female Institute for children ages 8-10.

Still, much of what is known about the PFI-era of the complex comes from digging in archives, not in the ground. Although most people don’t think of it thus, that’s part of the “scientific attempt to reconstruct our past,” which archaeology is, says Preston.

Now with most of the research questions answered there, future digs will take place at the Robinson Nature Center, where a good 15 “hot spots” await.

‘The teacher I always wanted to be’

Just as many of the latest generation of archaeologists trace their interest in the subject to the fictional exploits of Indiana Jones, so a number of Preston’s students have gone into the field now, too.

For instance, there’s Matt Croson, whose first paid project as a professional archaeologist was at PFI; Jaimie Wilder, now supervising and researching the 19th-century Bassler farm site on Howard Community College grounds; and Patrick Grissinger, who met his wife-to-be, Laura Cripps, in Scotland when she was supervising a dig site. Now a member of the HCC faculty, Cripps is the contact through whom HCC students are able to work at the proto-urban Bibracte site in France, which dates back at least as long as several centuries B.C.E. to the Roman Iron Age. It’s where Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars began in 58 B.C., so the opportunity is mighty exciting.

And there’s Chris Davenport, now county archaeologist in Palm Beach Co., Fla., who wasn’t officially a student of Preston’s until enrolling at HCC, but who had been so enthralled by the summer camp program that by age 14 he became Preston’s assistant there.

“Lee taught me how to teach archaeology, this skill set I have used the rest of my life including now as I’m teaching Introduction to North American Archaeology at Florida Atlantic University,” Davenport writes in an e-mail. “Aside from the academics, Lee taught me every field skill an archaeologist needs. ... This experience helped me land more jobs than I can count.”

Transferring from HCC to Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, Davenport continues, “I was entering with more actual field experience than the rest of my cohort combined. This was solely due to one man’s efforts.”  

All of which might make one wonder, if he knew then what he does now and had it to do all over again, would Preston have chosen archaeology instead of education as his own profession?

“I think my calling was education,” Preston says. “I love archaeology, but as students I once taught continue to emerge from my past I realize I am the teacher I always wanted to be.”

Now after distilling 40 years of experience and adventures into an illuminating volume (including the 235 images he scanned in), Preston’s next retirement project is yet another book. While it, too, is about archaeology, it won’t be a sequel and the images will be supplied by his wife, watercolor artist RoseAnn Preston. What the couple envisions is a children’s book designed to fit in with the county’s second-grade archaeology unit. Not a textbook, “Look What I Found!” (probable title) will show them that “it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”

Indy could only agree.

“Archaeology in Howard County and Beyond” by M. Lee Preston Jr., published by Chesapeake Book Company of Baltimore, is available for $30 at the Robinson Nature Center, 6692 Cedar Lane, Columbia. www.co.ho.md.us/RobinsonNatureCenter.htm

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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