10-acre parcel of prehistory, prime property

TILGHMAN ISLAND — TILGHMAN ISLAND -- Once, even before there was a Chesapeake Bay, this 10-acre parcel was high ground, the perfect waterfront campsite for Ice Age hunters of mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, bear-size beavers, fish and other sea creatures.

Turn the clock of human history forward 13,000 years. The site called Paw Paw Cove is a twofold rarity -- an incalculable archaeological treasure and a prime piece of waterfront real estate that could easily fetch $1.5 million in a market where buyers are snapping up pricey properties all over the Eastern Shore.


The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a nonprofit group that has preserved 36,000 acres of fields and woods worth $55 million, is scrambling to raise the money to buy the property and preserve its trove of prehistory and its 500 feet of sandy beach.

The seller is home-grown archaeologist Darrin Lowery, a Tilghman native with a doctoral degree who began his career as a child, collecting artifacts in the area with his father, a waterman and boat builder.


Lowery, 37, bought the property in 1999 for $135,000. He says he has turned down numerous offers for it. Now, he says, a combination of personal and professional considerations, including a divorce, are prompting him to sell.

"Obviously, I want to see this site preserved, but I've also got to be a realist," Lowery said. "I realize it sounds self-serving for a landowner to tell people that this is really something truly rare. But if this doesn't work out with the conservancy, it'll have to go back on the market."

Paul Meredith, the real estate agent handling the property for Lowery, said there is a ready market, even though zoning would allow only one house to be built on the site.

"You have to have a buyer with deep pockets who wants to be somewhat remote," Meredith said. "But wide-open land on the bay with views like that -- there's just not much of it. There's demand up and down the Eastern seaboard."

Rob Etgen, the conservancy's executive director, credits Lowery with "bending over backward" to make the deal, extending a deadline by 30 days to give Etgen more time to line up benefactors.

County backs out

The transaction might have gone through last month, but Talbot County lawmakers, who had pledged $500,000 toward the purchase of the property that would have doubled as a park, withdrew the offer. Instead, the county needs the money for emergency repairs to a recreation center roof.

"We got involved because it sounded like a tragedy about to happen," Etgen said. "Paw Paw Cove tells the story of man's habitation of the East Coast."


Richard Hughes, chief of heritage planning and outreach for the Maryland Historical Trust, said the state has tentatively committed $50,000 to the project and continues to have an interest in the preservation effort, even in a lean budget year.

Owner is praised

"I've got to give [Lowery] credit; he's done everything possible to give the state, the county, the conservancy a chance to make something happen," Hughes said.

Lowery, whose years of intermittent excavation have turned up only a fraction of the artifacts that he and other scientists believe lie here, likens the site to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii -- buried and frozen in time.

About 12,800 years ago, during the "last gasp of the Ice Age," Lowery said, the climate warmed and left a 3-foot-deep layer of silt over the site, preserving countless artifacts. And the site is high enough that it has not been damaged by constant erosion that nibbles at land bordering the Chesapeake.

"If this were 10 acres of Jamestown or St. Mary's City, it would be easier to raise public interest and awareness," Lowery said. "We should think of this as an archaeological bank."


Dennis Stanford, anthropology chairman and director of Paleo-Indian research at the Smithsonian Institution, said the site has great potential for producing clues to the early humans who settled North America. Artifacts found at Paw Paw Cove are nearly identical to those found in the American West and in parts of Europe, he said.

Disputed theory

Stanford has sparked contention among archeologists with his theory that North America might have been settled by Ice Age travelers who arrived from Europe in crude boats -- rather than traveling a frozen land bridge from Siberia as many scientists theorize.

Stanford, who has known Lowery for years, hopes to eventually find a piece of charcoal from an ancient fire that could be carbon dated. If human remains are found at Paw Paw Cove, scientists could conduct DNA tests that might point to their origin.

"It is just a theory, but if we're right, they'll have to change the history books," Stanford said. "This is one of the few buried, early sites on the East Coast of North America. The whole area is as rich as any I've seen in the United States."

Lowery, who first scavenged for spear points, arrowheads and other treasures as a child, said he has an abiding interest in preserving the site.


"This is where a good chunk of my career has been, and I'd never bail out on that," he said. "But there are other mysteries of archaeology I want to take a look at."