Parts of Charles County's Zekiah Swamp are every bit as inhospitable as the name suggests, choked with tick-infested woods and boot-sucking wetlands.
But as archaeologists are discovering to their delight, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries Zekiah was a growth center for the young Maryland colony.
The site of a 1674 courthouse was found last summer. Excavations this month have uncovered what might be traces of the "summer house" that Gov. Charles Calvert built to dodge his political enemies. And diggers are searching for traces of Zekiah Fort, built in 1680 to resettle several hundred "friendly" Piscataway Indians.
"Zekiah is just the coolest place," said St. Mary's College anthropologist Julia A. King, who is leading the multiyear archaeological survey, the first ever for the area. "The more I get to know it, the more exciting it becomes."
The digs are a cooperative project of St. Mary's College of Maryland, the College of Southern Maryland and the Smallwood Foundation.
Smallwood President Michael Sullivan, a developer with a passion for Charles County history, has provided almost $40,000 for the work "to preserve the history of this county and to help create a better sense of pride" for the fast-growing area, he said.
Compared with St. Mary's County, site of Maryland's first Colonial capital, and Anne Arundel County, which funds an active archaeology office, Charles County has seen little professional archaeology.
"There is a lot of history that's not been told," Sullivan said, "and a lot of sites yet to be discovered."
Zekiah Swamp lies at the head of the Wicomico River, a tributary of the Potomac. It extends northward for 20 miles, flanked by the fertile bottomlands that attracted Colonial tobacco planters.
In 1674, the government ordered a proper courthouse built at Moore's Lodge in the Zekiah to accommodate the county's growing legal needs. The spot served as Charles County's first county seat until 1727, when local government moved to Port Tobacco.
A Colonial map included a sketch of the courthouse, so "everybody knew exactly what it looked like," King said. "But nobody knew where it was."
By last summer, research in the rich county archives, clever computer mapping and 712 systematically dug "shovel tests" across hay and soybean fields had revealed compelling concentrations of late 17th- and early 18th-century artifacts. King declared that she had found the courthouse site.
This summer, her crews of college students and volunteers are expanding their surveys. In May, the first diggers set out to find "His Lordship's Favor," a house built in the Zekiah in 1674 by Charles Calvert, the eldest son of Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore, and eventual heir to the title.
There, he told his father, "I resolve to live in the summertime." He believed it would be a "healthful" place, he said, and safer from political enemies than his mansion at Mattapany, where the Patuxent Naval Air Station is today.
Calvert told his father he intended to build a brick place, not one of the rot-prone, wooden, "earth-fast" structures common in the colony. In the end, however, he settled for just such a wooden structure set in the dirt "according to the fashion of the buildings of this country."
And that - or rather its scant remains - is what King and her crews were looking for. Their only other clue to its construction was a 1705 map that included a tiny sketch of the property, showing what looks like a brick chimney, not the cheaper mud daub that most colonists chose.
After hacking their way through thick woods near the Charles County Landfill and digging hundreds of 2-foot-deep shovel tests, King's crew hit on a striking concentration of artifacts, including brick fragments.
But when the ceramics, pipe stems and a one-quarter slice of a Spanish coin from the 1730s were examined, she said, the site "didn't look like 1674." The oldest items she could find dated to the 1690s. If this really was Calvert's summer house, where were the signs of occupation from the 1670s?
"So, I go back into the records and realized that Charles Calvert built the house, and has every intention of living there, but the circumstances of one's life change," she said. Perhaps Governor Calvert just got too busy to actually move in.
There were clashes between Maryland and Virginia colonists (including John Washington, George's grandfather) and the Indians. The violence threatened everyone's safety. There was an uprising by Virginia frontiersmen against the government. And there was unspecified business in 1676 that took Calvert back to England for two years. By 1684, he had left Maryland for good and the summer house was sold.
So, "he built the house, but maybe he's just not there," King said. The artifacts they found could be the refuse of later tenants or owners who lived there into the early 1700s. On the other hand, if it's not Calvert's house, it's not at all clear from the archival record just who else's it might be.
"To clinch it," King said, "I need to survey all around it and rule out all other properties. This is extremely tantalizing."
The Zekiah survey crews have moved on, expanding their grid patterns of shovel tests across fields that old maps suggest might be promising. They are looking for anything, really, but especially for traces of the 1680 Zekiah Fort.
Calvert ordered the fort built to resettle 90 to 320 Piscataway Indians. These English allies were being raided by hostile Susquehannocks from the north. By moving the Piscataways into the fort, Calvert figured, they would be safer along with the planters. The Indians remained there, in close commerce with the settlers, for 12 years.
Last week, in a Zekiah hayfield, Smallwood Foundation employee Scott M. Strickland led a small band of students as they dug shovel tests every 100 feet.
"It's always a challenge. Every day is a different learning environment," said Amy Publicover, 21, an anthropology/archaeology major at the College of Southern Maryland.
Her dig partner, sophomore Sara Greenwell, 18, found the Spanish coin fragment at the Calvert house site, a thrill for any archaeologist. "I just couldn't believe it ... that something from so long ago was in my hand. I just wanted to keep it forever," she said.
Archaeology is not always that exciting. Shaking the sandy dirt through a quarter-inch screen, they found several quartz flakes - evidence of stone tool-sharpening - and a lone fragment of decorated Indian pottery. Strickland identified it as Potomac Creek ware and dated it to 1300 to 1700.
It was a nice find on a slow day, but not, by itself, evidence of the fort or of the mingling of European and Native American artifacts they're looking for. The shovel-test grid would probably have to be extended into the more difficult beech, sycamore and sweet gum woods nearby, King said.
This season's search will continue for several weeks, King said. But the archaeological work in the Zekiah Swamp is likely to continue for years.