Under blue tents in Cockeysville, archeologists scrub shards of pottery with toothbrushes. Nearby, small flags jut from the grass and a hole reveals a stone foundation and steps.
It might seem an unlikely place for an archaeological project, just a short distance from Interstate 83 and a light rail stop. But it's where a team of archaeologists working with the Maryland State Highway Administration is unearthing the remnants of a small plantation where slaves, free blacks and European immigrants once labored side by side, an arrangement historians say was more common in Maryland than in other slave states.
The archaeologists are seeking to uncover how the diverse group lived and interacted on the plantation, a 20-acre site once known as the Marble Valley Farm.
"Typically, when people think about plantations, they think about huge mansions with hundreds of slaves," said Julie Schablitsky, an SHA archaeologist who's leading the project. "We're trying to find out about the social and cultural complexities of this middle-class plantation, where the workers came from different backgrounds and nationalities."
For the past two weeks, the team has worked eight-hour days, digging, collecting and archiving artifacts. This preliminary stage is set to end tomorrow, but the team plans to return this fall with officials from the Maryland Historical Society for more research.
So far, archaeologists have discovered bits of dishes, medicine bottles and clothing buttons.
The property dates to 1736, when it was part of a 200-acre tract known as "The Forrest." A series of modest homes was built in the early 19th century and the owners operated a marble quarry and lime kiln. During these years, as many as 19 slaves worked on the property, although that number dwindled to six by the 1830s. In the mid-1800s, about the time the property was named Marble Valley Farm, a mix of free and enslaved blacks and Irish and German immigrants worked there.
In the 1950s, a quarry company bought the property and leased a farmhouse to a family that named it Connemara in honor of their Irish heritage. The farmhouse and some outbuildings were later razed. The State Highway Administration, which purchased the land in 1990, plans to build maintenance and construction offices on a portion of the site.
Because of Maryland's proximity to free states, slaveholders here tended to run small farms and keep fewer slaves, said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland, College Park history professor, who has written several books about slavery.
The transformation of Marble Valley from a plantation that depended on slave labor to one worked by slaves, free blacks and immigrants mirrored changes in the role of slavery in this state.
"Maryland, particularly northern Maryland, was going from a slave society to a society in which slaves were just one type of labor," Berlin said.
By the mid-1800s, a growing number of Maryland slaves were escaping to freedom, causing slave owners to re-evaluate their dependence on slavery. Many struck bargains with those they enslaved, promising freedom for them and their families if they stayed and worked for a few years.
Their motivation was often based more in pragmatism than morality, Berlin said.
"They wanted to keep the game going as long as possible - they don't have any compunctions about that," he said. "But unlike the guys in South Carolina who think slavery is going to go on forever, they know the system is going to end soon."
In the last years of slavery, as many Maryland plantations employed a diverse mix of laborers, a complex relationship was forged between free and enslaved blacks and white wage laborers, said Dianne Swann-Wright, a curator at the Frederick Douglass Isaac Myers Maritime Museum in Fells Point.
Some former slaves recalled sharing recipes and learning words in other languages from the European immigrants, Swann-Wright said. Yet immigrants, determined to advance economically and socially, often were hostile to blacks, she said.
"It was really during that time period that people stopped being considered by their ethnic group and were considered black or white," Swann-Wright said.
At small plantations like Marble Valley, slaves, free workers and owners tended to work and live near each other. Enslaved and free people labored together in the fields, ate the same meals and slept in the same house, although slaves often were banished to an attic or a storage room, Berlin said.
Owners tended to keep slaves longer on small farms, Swann-Wright said, although that did not mean that they treated them better than large plantation owners.
"I think the thing to remember is that what held slavery in place was violence or the threat of violence," she said.
At the former Marble Valley Farm, archaeologists have unearthed little evidence about the lives of slaves. When the team began digging almost two weeks ago, they had hoped to find a slave cemetery or slave quarters that are rumored to be on the site.
Several items found during the excavation were organized on a table near in the center of the site yesterday, including a small black button found behind a house. Schablitsky said that it probably came from a wool coat of one of the workers. The team also found pieces of multicolored stoneware, slate pencils and large chunks of coal.
With the initial dig almost complete, the archaeologists hope to find remnants that reveal even more about the farm community in future excavations.
"We have barely scratched the surface in regards to the types of artifacts that we're hoping to find on this site," Schablitsky said.