Don’t miss the Carroll County home show this weekend!

Arundel dig bares shipyard Amateurs assist archaeologists


After 10 days of digging on shore and mucking around in the West River south of Annapolis, archaeologists say they have uncovered the remains of one of Maryland's earliest defense industries.

The 42-acre Stephen Steward shipyard prospered from the 1750s until British forces sailed up in 1781 and torched the yard and the rebel warships it was building.

The shipyard also was the target of a small army of amateur and professional archaeologists and divers, who wrapped up their work yesterday.

"An intact 18th century shipyard has not been recorded for the whole mid-Atlantic coast," said Bruce F. Thompson, assistant state underwater archaeologist, and the principal investigator at the site. "There have been a number found, but with varying amounts of integrity. None has been this complete or this well recorded."

The dig was part of the 23rd Annual Field Session of the Archaeological Society of Maryland Inc. and the Maryland Historical Trust's office of archaeology.

The yearly spring digs are designed to match the interests of amateurs to the real scientific needs of the state's professional archaeologists.

Each year, scores of volunteers join the professionals in uncovering a major archaeological site.

For a modest fee, they receive hands-on training and camping for as many of the 10 days as they wish to work.

During the past 10 days, volunteer divers and waders probed and screened the mud along the riverbank and located portions of the timber ways and wharves where ships as large as 270 tons were slipped into the water and outfitted for sea.

They recovered a carpenter's measuring stick, ships' hardware, harness buckles and other debris from a stable thought to have stood near the wharf.

"We could work here another five years and still be finding stuff," Mr. Thompson said.

Onshore, as many as 60 volunteers at a time dug along carefully plotted trench lines and uncovered a trove of spikes, nails, forge debris and the remains of tools used in 18th century shipbuilding.

Farther back from the water they uncovered signs of the workers' domestic activity, including broken glass and ceramics, buttons and clay pipes, all dating from the mid- to late-18th century.

Archaeologist John L. Seidel said there was repeated evidence of intense fires.

It could not be said for sure when or why the fires occurred, he said, but it was difficult not to link the charred deposits to the 1781 British attack.

Indian stone tools dating back 8,000 or 10,000 years also were found.

Except for plowing, the shipyard site has remained undisturbed since the 18th century. It is now covered by plowed fields, young trees and bushes.

But the developer of an adjacent neighborhood plans to use the land for recreational facilities. Archaeologists hope to work with area homeowners to preserve the site and display its artifacts.

Stephen Steward established his shipyard near timber supplies on the southern end of the West River in about 1753.

By 1757, he had been joined by Samuel Galloway, and the yard had become a small industrial village, turning out three or more vessels a year.

"It's not like your typical shipyard," Mr. Thompson said. "A lot of them built one or two types of vessels and never changed the plan. This guy [Stephen Steward] built all those varieties, right up to the Revolutionary War galleys. He must have been quite a sharp fellow."

Historical records uncovered prior to the dig showed that rope, ballast, masts, blocks and tools had been supplied to the yard from all over Maryland.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad