The work has been painstaking, with years spent poring over old maps, land records and photographs or sifting through piles of dirt for shards of dishes or tools.
Now the efforts of archaeologists and preservationists in Annapolis have been compiled in a new project that marries history and technology: a single, interactive Web site that will offer the public unprecedented views of the city's Colonial past.
The Annapolis collection, called Preservation Search, catalogs only a fraction of the 2,000 structures in the city's historic district, but is one of the most comprehensive online collections of historic records of a single jurisdiction, said Mark P. Leone, a University of Maryland, College Park anthropology professor and the force behind the Archaeology in Annapolis digs.
"It allows Annapolis to see more of itself on its own," said Leone, who has led the project. "It's a way to explain its spatial history. It's a way to see relationships change over time. You don't need a guide. You don't need to pay. You don't need to get tired. You can do it all online and the audience for it is potentially infinite."
He and the other site creators hope that the site, funded largely through a grant from the Maryland Historic Trust, will stand as a model for similar endeavors in the state and across the country. Similar Web sites exist internationally and for places such as Prince George's County, Loudoun County in Virginia and New Philadelphia, Ill., but none as vast as Annapolis'.
The Maryland capital's collection of historic documents and details of archaeological digs, culled from sources that include the Library of Congress, the Maryland State Archives, the Maryland Historic Trust and the Annapolis Historic Foundation, is nearly unparalleled in scope, say local preservationists and historians.
Leone's work in Annapolis dates to 1981 when he and his team led the first of 40 excavations of historically significant sites, several of them unearthing artifacts of the city's African-American community. Two of those excavations, are featured on the site, through maps and photos.
The site also contains several Sunburn Map Company Fire Insurance maps, which were produced between 1867 and the late 1950s to provide data for insurance underwriters and are now a valuable research tool. The maps resulted in a block-by-block inventory in the densely populated areas of most American cities and towns.
Color is used to indicate construction materials for each building - pink for brick; yellow for wood; brown for adobe.
Leone worked over eight years with Timothy A. Goddard, a doctoral student in industrial heritage and archaeology, to digitize and put that information into a Geographic Information System, or GIS, an interactive online display that incorporates interactive queries, spatial information analysis and maps superimposed over one another.
Now visitors to the site can survey the city, from Main Street to Maryland Avenue and the Annapolis shoreline. They can watch the area develop from a quiet farming community to the state's bustling hub of state government and maritime commerce, with the larger plots of land breaking up into smaller ones, and see new streets being built.
The University of Maryland has provided the server to maintain the Web site for free. Leone said it is his goal to continually update the site, to one day include the entire historic district areas of Eastport and Parole.
Leone and Goddard expect the site will appeal not only to preservationists and archaeologists, but to tourists and residents looking for guidance on their homes' history.
Specifically in a city with a zealous Historic Preservation Commission, which reviews all building permits for facades within the historic district, the site will serve as a valuable tool in matters relating to construction or rehabilitation to sensitive sites, said Tom Boudoir, an archaeologist for the commission.
Though the digital compilation is generally viewed as a valuable resource, history purists aren't counting out good old paper.
"While digital information is very valuable, there is no substitute for the original," said Ginger Doyen, a local historian and author. "And I feel that every time I hold in my hand a historic letter or map."
Preservation Search can be found online at http:--preservationsear chwebgis.anth.umd.edu/AIAfront end/index.html.