Beneath the tall trees and wildflowers of Baltimore's Herring Run Park, the ground holds clues to the city's distant past.
With a small budget, a short time frame and a dedicated group of volunteers, archaeologists Jason Shellenhamer and Lisa Kraus — who are married and live about a half-mile from the park — are working with neighborhood history buffs to uncover remains of an impressive estate owned by Baltimore merchant and politician William Smith.
"We got lucky with a lot of this," Shellenhamer said. "It seemed every time we put a shovel in the ground, we found something."
After doing test digs around the park last fall, Shellenhamer and Kraus — working with Baltimore Heritage and the Northeast Baltimore History Roundtable — organized a nine-day dig that wraps up Sunday.
Shellenhamer and Kraus are focused on an area where they've uncovered part of the fieldstone cellar and foundation of Smith's home, called Eutaw Manor, a site off Eastwood Drive in the Belair-Parkside neighborhood near Arcadia.
The property was first settled in 1695, but Smith was its most famous resident. He bought the land in 1770 and lived in a 60-by-60-foot wood frame house. He also had farmland and a milling operation on Herring Run.
Smith became rich during the Revolutionary War as a flour merchant and sometimes was derided as a war profiteer for selling his goods to the troops. Later, when he lived at Eutaw Manor, he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Maryland Senate. He died in 1814.
The Eutaw Manor home burned down in 1865, an event that was chronicled in local newspapers. Smith's descendants who lived there were preparing to welcome guests for a christening when the fire broke out, Shellenhamer said.
Artifacts that have been found include some with signs of being damaged by fire, Shellenhamer said.
In addition to finding bits of pottery, glass and household items, the dig participants have discovered an underground pile of oyster shells that are likely from the early 1800s, as well as artifacts from the late 1700s in another part of the property — possibly the remains of an earlier structure, Shellenhamer said.
Kraus said it's been rewarding to work with volunteers on the nine-day dig. Some who signed up to help for just a half-day ended up coming back every day, she said.
"It's thrilling," Kraus said. "They've all been very enthusiastic."
Best yet, the volunteers have been able to find "an embarrassment of riches" in the artifacts, she said.
"We were very nervous; we said, 'Please just let us find something,'" Kraus said. "I've never heard of anyone being this lucky."
Friends Jeanne Marsh and Ron Roski and 10-year-old neighborhood resident Sophia Manni bent over a mesh screen Saturday afternoon, shaking it in hopes that piles of dirt would reveal tiny fragments of artifacts.
They found bits of ceramic, glass, charcoal and brick, as well as hand-made nails.
Marsh, a member of the Archaeological Society of Maryland, was thrilled to participate in a project within the city. Many archaeological digs are out in the suburbs, she said, because much of the city has been paved over, making urban digs a rarity.
Sophia got a kick out of getting a firsthand look at history. She recently read about the Civil War and the evolution of women's rights.
"I love figuring out how people lived back then," she said.
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After that, Kraus, Shellenhamer and volunteers will clean and catalog the artifacts. Organizers hope to have another dig at Herring Run if they can find funding. A small grant from Preserve Maryland covered the costs of this year's dig.
Kraus, who works for the Maryland Environmental Trust and the State Highway Administration, and Shellenhamer, who works for RK&K Engineers, used vacation time to run the dig.
"This has been a really great experience," Shellenhamer said. "We met a whole lot of neighbors."