Standing over one of the Colonial, brick sidewalks that help define Annapolis, the archaeologists began digging with trowels and shovels.
The team from the University of Maryland carved a 4-foot-long trench along a sidewalk at Fleet and Cornhill streets - two of the oldest in the historic district. Bagging and tagging artifacts along the way, they scraped through the powdered remains of a red brick sidewalk from 1820 and a black layer of wood chips from 1740.
Then they found something far more significant than the shards of pearlware, animal bones and the King George III penny that they uncovered in the layers above: a log street that archaeologists called the oldest remnant yet discovered of the Annapolis settlement.
Preserved in briny muck were several logs laying side-by-side perpendicular to the curb. They were flattened on the top and sides, but the curve and bark of the log remained on the bottom.
The find, announced yesterday, is unique because log roads, while common during Colonial times, rotted long ago, said Mark Leone, a University of Maryland archaeologist who started the Archaeology in Annapolis project in 1981. But these logs are in saltwater and covered in silt and clay - an anaerobic environment perfect for preservation.
"The major impact of this discovery is to alert everybody that the archaeology of (Fleet and Cornhill) roads is intact," Leone said. "There's a lot more we can expect."
The 3-foot section of log road remained buried for so long because archaeologists get to dig only when a major construction project is about to begin, he said. The city Department of Public Works is paying for the excavation ahead of a $5 million project to lay underground utility cables and upgrade sewer and water pipes.
The find has excited city historians and officials who are organizing events for the 300th anniversary celebration of the city's royal charter, which starts next week.
"This confirms some of the early beginnings of the city," Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said. "It wasn't long before that it was basically woodland."
The archaeologists and students had dug several trenches on Fleet Street and on Market Space over the past month in search of anything of historical value. They were shocked by their discovery.
"We were expecting sidewalks," said Matthew Cochran, project director for the University of Maryland team. "We didn't expect a road."
After they had pumped away water into buckets and wiped away the mud, the team, over the weekend, uncovered six logs about an inch and a half apart, leading Leone to believe it was a "corduroy" road - nicknamed for its bumpy nature - used by colonists to cart wagons of goods over the marshy waterfront to market in the early 1700s. He thinks there could be hundreds more logs, and he hopes to find out how far the road stretches.
It could be part of the Southeast Line, a throughway that ran through the southern and eastern parts of the city from Dorsey's Creek to City Dock. It is listed on a 1684 survey of the settlement. Historians don't know whether the log road dates from then or the early 1700s.
"All the story is not in yet," said Tony Lindauer, an Annapolis historian. "We've got to check our sources."
The road creates a benchmark for historians to compare to maps and uncover the original grid of the city, said Matthew Paulus, the project manager of the dig.
The dig site has drawn the attention of the public. Last weekend, more than 200 passers-by rubbernecked and asked questions, Cochran said. Ann Dax, who lives next door, walked over yesterday for a look. She used to volunteer at archaeological digs around the area.
"I'm very impressed," she said.
Cochran thinks it is important to tell the site's story to the public.
"It's exciting to involve the public with their past," he said.