Archaeologists seek War of 1812 remnants buried within Patterson Park

Today it's best known for the pagoda, summertime jazz concerts and some of the city's best sledding. But an archaeological dig planned for Patterson Park's Hampstead Hill seeks to revive a largely forgotten 200-year-old story.

While most know Fort McHenry's role in the Battle of Baltimore, thanks to Francis Scott Key and "The Star-Spangled Banner," few know or remember what transpired on the hill overlooking the harbor.

Buried there could lie remnants of the trenches that helped Baltimore fend off advancing British land forces and end the War of 1812.

Archaeologists have been probing the hill this week with ground-penetrating radar and other technology for signs of the fortifications and other traces that more than 10,000 regular troops and militiamen might have left behind. The survey is in preparation for digs scheduled in April and May, when local historians hope people visiting the park for festivals and events will see and learn the history for themselves.

"We've still got cannons out there, but I think that connection has been a little lost over the past two or three generations," said Johns Hopkins, director of nonprofit Baltimore Heritage, which landed grant money for the project. For a Baltimorean 150 years ago, that connection "would have been a no-brainer," he said.

"We're hoping to rekindle that sense of pride."

There are hints of the hill's past if you look closely. One of the cannons flanking the pagoda, added in 1914, the battle's centennial, bears a plaque that simply reads "1814." City school pupils marked the centennial with a statue of schoolchildren holding a scroll, dedicated to "the citizen soldiers of Maryland [who] stood ready to sacrifice their lives in defense of their homes and their country."

But it's the steep slope that wraps around the pagoda's southeast side that is the most direct sign of the hill's history. It was a key defensive point in a miles-long stretch of trenches dug ahead of the British invasion. The British planned an attack by land and by sea, with troops coming from their landing after the Battle of North Point and ships coming past Fort McHenry to bombard the city with cannons.

Baltimoreans knew the British would be eager to plunder the city, which they considered "a nest of pirates," said John Bedell, the project's principal investigator and a senior archaeologist with the Louis Berger Group in Washington. The British were coming off successful attacks on the nation's capital and on Fort Washington in Prince George's County.

Baltimore, a pro-war city that took pride in its privateers who attacked British vessels, was eager to defend itself, Bedell said. The trenches are thought to be systems of pits and hills, with dirt dug from the trenches and piled up behind them, creating steep and tall barriers for defense.

Archaeologists traced their path using maps of the area dating to the Civil War and plans for the park made in the early 20th century by the Olmsted brothers, who also designed New York's Central Park.

Most of the earthworks, which stretched from Fells Point to near Johns Hopkins Hospital, have been buried under buildings. But a team of archaeologists on Monday started surveying a segment that goes through the northwest corner of Patterson Park and plan to continue their work through Friday.

It doesn't look like what most might expect of an archaeological expedition. Amid the snow Tuesday afternoon, geophysical archaeologist Tim Horsley paced segments of the park carrying a magnetometer, a contraption of electronics mounted to pipes shaped like the letter H that beeps like a metronome. The device scans the ground beneath, and the surface as well, for metals.

Wednesday morning, Horsley pushed a device like a jog stroller that dragged a radar antenna over the snow-covered ground, sensing for other objects and geological differences underfoot. The archaeologists also plan to survey what is known as soil resistivity, a measure of how much dirt resists the flow of electricity.

A combination of the pictures each method creates will inform where the archaeologists will start digging on April 15 and into early May. The magnetometer, for example, shows buried metal objects, but many of them could be modern, or even dating to Civil War camps that were in the same area. Radar could show signs of where the trenches had been back-filled.

"They're all teaching us slightly different things," Horsley said.

Baltimore Heritage wants to share those lessons with the community. About 50 people attended a meeting at Patterson Park Public Charter School presenting the project to the neighborhood, and the group again invited the community to learn from the archaeologists at a "Show and Tell" event at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Friends of Patterson Park headquarters at 27 S. Patterson Park Ave.

Some already have gotten involved, including Ryun Papson, an archaeologist who lives in Upper Fells Point and joined the surveying this week after learning about it at the community meeting. And there are plans to bring city schoolchildren to visit.

The interest in War of 1812 archaeology is not limited to Baltimore. A nonprofit called the Lost Towns Project is looking for artifacts of and information about skirmishes in Anne Arundel County.

In Baltimore, the digging will coincide with events including a family fun day called Día del Nino on April 26 and the Kinetic Sculpture Race on May 3, giving the public a chance to catch the archaeology in action.

Organizers hope that refreshes the city's collective memory as it prepares to mark the bicentennial of the battle itself on Sept. 14, with the finale of the "Star-Spangled Sailabration" that began in 2012. The celebration is slated to include events at Fort McHenry and at Patterson Park over the weekend of Sept. 13-14.

"My father always said every generation has to discover its own history," Hopkins said. "That, I think, is what we're doing here."

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