LIKE SO MANY DAYS THIS PAST SUMMER, JULY 11 DAWNED hot and steamy; but that didn't keep passers-by from stopping and staring into the deep pits we were digging as part of an archaeology project in downtown Annapolis. Peering down, everyone wanted to know: "What did you find? Anything interesting?" They hazarded guesses and hopes: "Any gold?" "Any bones?"
Kathie Hitch, a Bowie native and one of two dozen undergraduates earning University of Maryland field-study credits by working for Archaeology in Annapolis, told them about the record that she found. And about the plastic sunglass frames and the slivers of glass. The people seemed disappoint-ed. Always, they hoped for something more dramatic - -something that would indicate, perhaps, great wealth or some story of intrigue.
Paul Mullins, the lab supervisor for the dig, jokingly refers to this interest in things as an "object fetish." He says that most people have one and that it shows how we think about archaeology in general. We tend to focus primarily on the arti-facts themselves, instead of on what the artifacts mean. Archaeologists, however, are more interested in the interpretation - in trying to discover not just what an artifact is, but also what it can tell us about the person who once owned it, and about how that person lived.
The Franklin Street dig, supervised by four graduate students including Mr. Mullins, is part of a 10-year umbrella project called Archaeology in Annapolis. Co-sponsored by Historic Annapolis and the University of Maryland, Archaeology in Annapolis is designed to enrich the city's heritage by excavating, processing and interpreting artifacts. The Franklin Street site is one of several examined as part of the larger project. It was chosen as a place to dig during this past summer, and the next two summers, because the County Courthouse, which now uses the site as a parking lot, plans to add an annex. If the site weren't excavated, any artifacts buried there would be lost forever.
The site was also significant because of who once lived there. According to 19th century city directories, census reports and fire insurance maps, the owners of Franklin Street property were free African-Americans. Their houses, specifically labeled "Negro dwellings" on the old maps, lined the entire block. Blacks inhabited the area continuously from as early as the 1830s, and probably earlier, up until the 1970s.
That fact should not surprise us. After all, African-Americans have lived in Annapolis since the 1600s. By 1850, they represented one quarter of the city's population. Still, most people are surprised to learn about Annapolis' free black population, a me while digging on the Franklin Street site. Ms. Hitch and I were hunched together in a 4--foot-deep pit, one of five dug on the parking lot. India Pruitt, 10 years old, full of spunk, the first and at that time only African- American on the dig, joined us. India told us that she loves to dig in the dirt, and that her mother, who works for the Banneker-Douglass Museum, en-couraged her to give her time to the project. Working hard, wielding trowels, we three scraped at the pit's dense red clay bottom. All of us were hot and sweaty and a little bit tired.
"This dirt, it's pitiful," said India. It was crowded and stuffy in the pit. She stood up for some air and to wipe the sweat from her face. "Boy," she said. "I'm glad I'm not a slave." She paused. "This is exactly how they must have felt, out in the sun all day, picking cotton and lugging it around."
It struck me then that India Pruitt knew a great deal more about the daily lives of slaves who lived on distant plantations than she knew about the free African-Americans who once lived a few blocks from her home. I, too, knew more about slaves. And probably, until the start of the dig, so did all the college students and even the professional archaeologists working on the site.
You could say our lack of information was pitiful.
But that is precisely why the dig was arranged. The artifacts that are found will help fill the wide gaps in our knowledge. In July, this particular exploration had just begun. In the future, though, as all of the artifacts are cleaned, categorized and interpreted, it will help shed new light on what life was like for past generations of African--Americans in Annapolis.
IF ANYONE GRASPS HOW little attention has been focused on black history in Annapolis, it's Dr. Mark Leone, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Leone also serves as project director for Archaeology in Annapolis. Until last year, Archaeology in Annapolis focused mostly on white - Annapolis -for example, excavating the elaborate gardens behind the Charles Carroll home. (Carroll was a signer of the Declaration and archaeology of black remained largely ignored.
Part of the problem was finding remains that belonged exclusively to African-Americans. That's why archaeologists were pleased to discover the Franklin Street site. Because it establishes continous black ownership of property for nearly a 200-year period, it solves a key problem.
"In the 18th century in this city," Dr. Leone explains, "the vast majority of blacks would have been slaves and would have lived in their master's house. The archaeology that they're responsible for and the archaeology of their owners is all mixed up. In an upper-class house, you can't tell what's black and what's white."
And if you can't separate the artifacts, you can't figure out how daily living patterns - the focus of this excavation - differed from group to group. At Franklin Street, however, and at Gott's Court, another African--American site excavated last summer by Archaeology in Annapolis, we know with certainty that the artifacts were either made, bought or used by blacks. With that fact established, archaeologists can begin to examine artifacts in the context of black ownership.
To help understand that context, Dr. Leone invited community participation - particularly black participation - in his project. The concept of community involvement is still considered somewhat radical in academia. After all, the community is usually not made up of experts in a particular field. And typically, academicians work from a set of questions that interest them. In this case, Archaeology in Annapolis wanted to know what questions the black community would like answered.
"To make it a true partnership," says Ben Ford, assistant site director for the dig, "we wanted to reach out to the black community and involve them in every level of the project."
Dr. Leone received an enthu-siastic response from the Banneker-Douglass Museum, which is located next to the site and involved in preserving and presenting African-American history and culture. "What's fantastic about working with the black community in Annapolis," Dr. Leone notes, "was from the moment he asked them to collaborate, they said "Sure, we're very interested," without anybody saying, "This is patronizing by whites to blacks."
One of the main challenges to both the archaeologists and the Banneker-Douglass staff, however, was explaining the project to the black-community and getting more blacks involved. By the end of this summer, only four African-Americans, including India Pruitt, had volunteered at the dig. Dr. Leone says that doesn't matter. "What matters," he insists, "is that the black community is involved at the level of interpretation. The people at the Banneker-Douglass Museum are passionately committed to having a very substantial hand in the interpreting."
Indeed, black participation in interpreting artifacts proved quite helpful at the Gott's Court site. For instance, archaeologists uncovered what they would have labeled a steel comb. But the comb looked different to the archaeologists: Its teeth were flatter, and it was once attached to a wooden handle. They puzzled over it, until a black woman told them, oh, that's a hair straightener."
The bottom line, according to Paul Mullins, the lab supervisor, is that "we want archaeology to be useful to people. I can provide empirical facts about artifacts. I can tell you that a certain vessel was German-made, salt-glazed, fired at 1,300 degrees and used for storage. But what does that mean? So what? We need to ask, what is meaningful, or useful, about this vessel?"
INDEED, WHAT IS USEFUL OR mean-ingful about certain vessels? What does the black community hope to learn from archaeology?
"The dig will provide us with concrete information," says Dianne Swann Wright, historian for the Banneker-Douglass Museum. "We will find out what types of diets people were able to maintain, and what were their material culture remains. Through that, we might find out about their economic status and daily living habits, in a way that census reports can't tell us."
Ms. Wright and the archaeologists stress s that they are exploring not famous, but everyday people - regular folks who had to work hard to make a living. "African-Americans for a long time were left out of everyday history. These artifacts will help us piece together a more com-plete picture of their lives," Ms. Wright says. "I think we are following a healthy trend, to be able to understand what the common man's history was - what his life was."
Traditionally, archaeologists uncover information about how buildings were made, how much they cost, and how rooms were arranged. By looking at refuse, they can tell how food was prepared and consumed, and how it was thrown away. Ceramic artifacts are especially useful because archaeologists know with certainty when and where they were made, and how expensive they were. All of this information does, indeed, provide clues into socioeconomic status.
In exploring Gott's Court, the site of African-American tenement housing from 1870 to 1940, archaeologists found that residents used dishes and bottles similar to what white Americans used. They also discarded them in the same way.
"That means," Dr. Leone says, "that we think they are participating in the same market, spending the same dollars to buy similar things. But what is dramatically different is the ratios and proportions of dishes and bottles, ceramics and glass."
The archaeologists also found a much higher proportion of glass medicine bottles at Gott's Court. But of even greater interest to African-Americans was the discovery of "broken," or mismatched, sets of ceramic dishes. These broken sets sparked an interesting debate last spring.
In May, Mr. Mullins, Dr. Leone and Mark Warner, supervisor of the Franklin Street site, presented their Gott's Court findings at a symposium sponsored by the Banneker-Douglass Museum and the State Commission on African American History and Culture. The symposium was about the preservation and maintenance of African-American culture, and was specifically devoted to archaeology - about what material culture can tell us about black heritage.
The archaeologists pointed out that while the residents of Gott's Court might have been using the same place settings as the larger culture, implying that the same rules of etiquette applied, the settings were not all from the same set.
"We asked the largely black audience, 'Why is that the case?'" Dr. Leone recalls. "There was an enthusiastic, agitated, angry, passionate reaction. Some people got up and said, 'Well, we were just making do. We knew we were poor, and we couldn't buy matching sets, so we used what we had. Others said, 'No, that's not the story at all. We were maintaining our differences by not eating like white people. Poverty is relative, but identity is unique, and we were showing that we were unique.'"
ALTHOUGH THE EXPLORATION of the Franklin Street site is still young, a few facts from that site, facts that might be of interest to the black community, are becoming clear. First of all, the free blacks living there were members of the middle class. They owned fine porcelains, and their homes were well-constructed, some with basements. Because the dig has just begun, not much more information has been gleaned specifically from artifacts. But combining the known artifacts with the historical record provides a bigger picture of what it meant to be black and middle class a century ago.
The most important point is that a black middle class existed. "People assume," Ms. Wright notes, "that slaves lived in poverty and that free blacks lived in poverty. But the reality is that here, on Franklin Street, blacks were not poor."
Indeed, Mr. Warner discovered that in 1850 in Annapolis, there was one William Bishop, a black man who had at least $9,000 in assets. "Now that," Mr. Warner says. "was rich by anyone's standards. At the turn of the 20th century here, blacks were an active group who had choices about participating in society."
The other important lesson, according to Ms. Wright, is that blacks who lived on Franklin Street believed in helping each other achieve common goals. In 1874, for instance, they joined in to build a large brick church, now the home of the Banneker-Douglass Museum. They raised $6,000 among themselves to complete the building - a very expensive structure for the times.
The Franklin Street dig, Ms. Wright believes, serves as a reminder to blacks. "Not all, but many blacks think that we really have to start doing things for ourselves," Ms. Wright says. "And that's true. But what they forget, and what this project reminds us of, is that we have been doing for ourselves for as long as African-Americans have been in this country. We can learn from past generations. We can see that in order to receive anything, blacks had to work together. That's one very important thing that young people can learn today."
But perhaps the most important thing about the Franklin Street dig is that it's occurring at all. For years, blacks have been ignored by historians and archaeologists, so a full picture of their past has not been painted. Artifacts from the site will eventually wind up as part of exhibits in the Banneker-Douglass Museum. Groups of schoolchildren touring the museum will learn about the people who lived on Franklin Street, about their sense of community and pride, and about their success in commerce. In that way, the gaps in history can be filled, and our lack of knowledge won't be so pitiful anymore.
"You never know what you'll find out on a dig," Ms. Wright says, "but whatever it is, it will shed light on what is now unknown."