When Dan Coates retired from his 40-year Army career, he could finally devote more time to his lifelong passion for archaeology. As president of the Archeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake, Coates often conducts research in the Susquehanna River, and his calendar brims with speaking engagements.
Every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Coates also hosts visitors to the permanent exhibit he created, “The Prehistoric Culture of the Chesapeake,” in the former ice house on the grounds of Bel Air’s Liriodendron Mansion. He is the great-grandson of Dr. Howard Kelly, a founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital who had Liriodendron built in 1898.
What sparked your passion for archaeology?
It comes naturally in my family. My great-grandfather was most famous for being a surgeon, but he had many other interests, especially in natural science. He often traveled and set up camps in the Canadian woods, Florida Everglades and in the Colorado mountains to collect and document natural specimens. My mother and sisters have a serious interest in archaeology as well. They helped me build [the] exhibit from the ground up.
Any interesting discoveries in the Susquehanna region?
We have been working with the Pennsylvania Canal Society in the old Susquehanna Canal, which is located in the area of the Conowingo Dam. Many people think of it as the oldest real canal in the country, and it had been totally lost until recently. We have found three building foundations and more than 600 artifacts from between 1820 and 1860. They include bottles, lantern glass, metal utensils and glazed ceramics.
What do you want people to know about archaeology?
We don’t just go out and start digging. We go in with questions: Did the people who lived or worked in the area come from somewhere else? How did they spend their time? How did they prepare the food they ate?
Once you put a spade in the ground, the site is forever changed. We really never completely dig up an area. We leave it as intact as possible for future archaeologists who will have better knowledge and advanced technologies.
What can visitors expect from the exhibit at Liriodendron’s Ice House?
The first thing that people notice is the life-size diorama of a Native American and his dwelling. I want people, especially children, to come in with an open mind and be ready to think of ways that people have lived that are different from their own experiences. For example, they notice how small the dwelling is. It starts a discussion about how Native Americans lived most of their lives outdoors. Many only used the dwelling for sleeping, if that.
One of our centerpiece items is a rare petroglyph that shows a full moon with what we believe is a depiction of a planetary alignment. There aren’t a lot of labels and signs. I show how bones were used for tools, how early people made projectiles and how they used local soapstone to make bowls. We start conversations instead.