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Physical evidence of lost 19th-century tannery discovered during archaeological study conducted by Union Mills Homestead

An original wooden tanning vat wall was discovered at the Union Mills Homestead site on Monday as a result of an archaeological investigation of the 19th-century Shriver Tannery.

Joe Clemens of Elizabeth Anderson Comer/Archaeology probes a portion of a tanning vat at the Union Mills Homestead.
Joe Clemens of Elizabeth Anderson Comer/Archaeology probes a portion of a tanning vat at the Union Mills Homestead. (EAC/Archaeology)

Directed by archaeologist Elizabeth Anderson Comer, the project followed a ground-penetrating radar investigation earlier this year at the homestead. The study used high-frequency radar pulses to locate a variety of underground materials believed to be associated with the Shriver Tannery.

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The results indicated the presence of subsurface features, like foundations, as well as soil disturbances from other archaeological materials.

After a three-day dig, Comer’s team found what they believe is the edge of a wooden vat, lined with clay and filled in with demolition materials.

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Although they didn’t get to the bottom of the vat, field director Rob Wanner said their discovery reveals a lot of information about the site.

The archaeological work was part of an ongoing investigation to assess historical resources at the Union Mills Homestead, with a focus on the Shriver Tannery. The tannery, where animal hides were made into leather, was one of the early industries at the Union Mills industrial complex when it began in 1797. The Shriver family operated a tannery at Union Mills for almost a century, from 1797 through the mid-1890s.

According to a report earlier this year by Comer, products from the tannery were used by travelers who passed through Union Mills and for leather drive belts for the site’s grist mill. In the 1820s and 1830s the tannery grew into a larger enterprise.

“In a nutshell, this shows us clearly another example of how the Shriver family really pivoted their operations constantly,” Comer said.

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Tanneries in the 19th century were some of the most important industries in the area, yet there are few remaining active tanneries in the region. After the Shriver Tannery ceased operations in the 1890s, most of its structures were removed over time.

“All of this is very exciting,” Sam Riley, project coordinator, said. “There was a long-time belief there may be remnants of the tannery and the [ground-penetrating radar] suggested it, but now we have confirmation.”

Riley said the foundation will take “careful consideration” in deciding how to move forward but there are many potential options, including marking the site or providing signage to help tell the story of the industrial enterprise in the 19th century.

“The important thing is they achieved the purpose of the investigation and the vat is there and still in-tact,” he mentioned.

The project was funded under a grant from the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, a Maryland Heritage Area certified by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.

“Both of these agencies came together to do this important work … Otherwise it’d still be a question mark,” Comer said, adding that the site is one of the only archaeologically interpreted tanneries in the state.

Wanner said at the conclusion of their investigation, they covered the features they found in plastic and backfilled their excavation.

“Anyone else who wants to continue the investigation can,” he said. “The tanning area is prime real estate for interpretation and development … and now the Union Mills Homestead Foundation can plan around these resources.”

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