Al Luckenbach and Jim Gibb are looking for the town that isn't there.
The two Anne Arundel County archaeologists spent a recent day tramping through freshly plowed tobacco fields near Deale, and scouting nearby stream banks and hillsides, in search of Herrington -- another of Anne Arundel County's "lost" Colonial towns.
Their quarry was that shard of crockery or 17th-century pipe stem that would signal the presence here, more than 300 years ago, of a bay-side hamlet that flickered feebly for a few decades, then vanished.
"It's at least the second-oldest town in Anne Arundel County, and the mysteries about the place are numerous," Luckenbach said. "We don't even know how it was founded, or when, or how big it got to be."
The search is part of the county's "Lost Towns of Anne Arundel Project," which has turned London Town -- a vanished 17th- and 18th-century tobacco port on the South River -- into an archaeological park and tourist attraction.
In 1994, "Lost Towns" archaeologists also discovered the buried traces of Providence, an enclave of Virginia Puritans in Catholic Maryland. Built on the north side of the Severn's mouth in 1649, Providence was the foundation for Annapolis across the river but disappeared in the new capital's shadow after 1695.
"The documents tell us next to nothing about what life was like in the 17th century, and next to nothing about these towns," Luckenbach said. "The only way to do it is with a spade."
Unlike 17th-century towns such as Plymouth, Mass., which survived into the 20th century, short-lived places such as Providence and Herrington provide archaeologists with nearly pure "snapshots" of life in the 17th century. The broken pottery, bones and home sites can speak volumes about a 17th-century community's wealth, economy, environment and contacts with Europe and Indians.
The most remarkable thing about the Lost Towns project is that it exists at all.
Arundel has long had the state's strictest archaeological conservation laws.
Builders must conduct archaeological surveys on land they plan to develop. If a significant site is found, the developer must either pay for its excavation, or redraw the plan, if necessary, to protect it.
More recently, however, Arundel archaeology has blossomed, thanks to the political support of County Executive John G. Gary, who took office in 1994. "I believe we need to preserve our history. Once you've lost it, you've lost it forever," he said. "Economic development and other types of development are very important. But they [developers] can afford to work in a partnership with our historic people."
Under Gary, Luckenbach has gained an assistant (Gibb) and a staff of nine, four part-time. The budget holds $150,000 for this year's work at London Town and $25,000 for excavations at the 18th-century Stewart Shipyard on the West River.
Luckenbach's office has won private grants to buy ground-penetrating radar and global positioning system units, computer mapping gear and a magnetometer for seeking metallic objects. Herrington exists only in written records. There are references to a countywide election held there in 1667, to the establishment of a port in 1683 and to transfers in 1691 of five "town lots" somewhere on Herring Bay.
But where, exactly? The old maps are imprecise.
Many locals put the town on Town Point, opposite Deale. But Luckenbach's staff research suggests the town lots lay to the north, across Trott's Branch near what is now Highview on the Bay.
Luckenbach is looking for hard evidence -- artifacts that can be dated and traces of structures -- that must lie beneath the woods, fields and lawns.
"It's too big a place to just start digging holes," Luckenbach said. So he and Gibb ask questions.
At Steuart Chaney's Herrington Harbour North marina, they hear a legend about a 17th-century gravestone that once stood nearby. It's a good lead, but before they go, they scout the marina's scant natural shoreline.
Almost immediately they spot a prehistoric trash dump filled with oyster shells, a clay pipe stem they judge to be from the 18th century and a ceramic shard from about 1850. Nothing,though, from a 17th-century community.
Next, they visit Philip and Ruth Hazen. Their 19th-century farmhouse is flanked by newly turned tobacco fields that may hold clues. Ruth Hazen, it turns out, has been collecting bits of ceramics and local history for 15 years, which she says is "an all-consuming hobby."
Gibb and Luckenbach listen and date Hazen's finds to 1780 to 1880. Walking later through her fields, they pick up more fragments of 18th- and 19th-century glass, stoneware and pipe stems, and a prehistoric hammer stone.
Hazen is convinced that Herrington stood to the south, at Town Point. But Town Point Marina owner Ned Crandall pointed them back toward the Hazens'. "Over there," he said.
Purnell Franklin, who has lived his entire life in the area, stands in his doorway and recalls the 17th-century tombstones. They stood in Birckhead's Meadow, he said, somewhere above the St. Mark's Chapel cemetery.
"I heard my grandfather talk about it," Franklin said. Somebody named Nayler, an old pirate, was buried there, "and he had a pot of gold buried with him."
Two Birckhead gravestones, dated 1665, and that of Abraham Nayler, dated 1683, are weathering away to illegibility in the St. James Church graveyard in Tracys Landing, not far from St. Mark's.
The Birckhead stones are said to be the oldest dated grave markers in Maryland, but they predate St. James. They were moved to the church from their original sites.
If they can find the original burial spot, Gibb and Luckenbach might also find a 17th-century home site. "In 1680," Luckenbach said, "the tomb wasn't far from the house."
Luckenbach and Gibb drove to St. Mark's and walked back past its tiny cemetery onto a hillside in search of Birckhead's Meadow.
They find a few bits of handmade brick and a couple of ceramic shards. Then, suddenly, the payoff.
"Al," Gibb shouts, straightening up with something in his hand. "Rhenish stoneware medallion."
It is a fragment of gray-brown crockery, smaller than a thumb, bearing part of a larger decorative pattern. To the experienced eye, it is clearly part of a molded medallion that identified the German city where the jug was made.
"Absolutely, undoubtedly 17th century," Luckenbach said. "It's a first clue to the whereabouts of Abe Nayler's home. A very neat artifact."
Herrington remains lost for now. But it has begun to whisper.
Pub Date: 5/30/98