Archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation are helping excavate two small Colonial-era cabins near the historic Elkridge Furnace in Howard County, MD, located on land originally purchased for a highway project.
[Above photo by the Maryland DOT]
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Elkridge iron furnace –– used enslaved, indentured, and convict labor. Its use of slave labor is why it is now part of the U.S. National Park Service’s “Underground Railroad Network to Freedom,” which chronicles the history of slavery in the United States.
Iron furnaces used intense heat to convert iron ore into “pig iron” which could then be made into tools, wagon wheels, and other iron-based products. The white-hot fires required for this conversion made them labor-intensive and dangerous places to work.
This $50,000 archaeological project is a partnership between Maryland DOT and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources or DNR. The Maryland DOT’s State Highway Administration originally owned the land in conjunction with its construction of nearby I-195 but later conveyed it to DNR to save the historic complex.
The excavation team – led by Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Maryland DOT’s chief of cultural resources – uncovered brick floors, stone foundations, and various artifacts. Archaeologists hope to determine the age of the buildings and their relationship to the historic iron furnace.
“Archaeology is our last chance to understand the lives of these iron furnace workers who endured horrific conditions,” said Dr. Schablitsky in a statement. “We are piecing together their life one ceramic sherd and lost button at a time.”
“This latest partnership between MDOT and DNR shows our shared commitment to collaborate with fellow agencies and the community to discover and preserve one of Maryland’s greatest assets: our history,” added MDOT Secretary James F. Ports Jr.
The agency said any archaeological findings found at the site would become part of “interpretive materials” used by DNR, with the investigation also helping guide DNR’s work to restore the buildings. In the future, DNR and an on-site restaurant – Elkridge Furnace Inn – hope to use the archaeological discoveries to share the history of the site and the lives of the ironworkers with the public.
“As stewards of Maryland’s natural and cultural resources, we are proud to partner with MDOT and support this archaeological work,” DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said. “Having this information on the Elk Ridge Furnace site is invaluable as we work to interpret the important history of the Underground Railroad and convey what life was like during our nation’s early Industrial Revolution.”
This effort follows a previous dig conducted by Maryland DOT’s archeological team in 2021 that helped discover a historic home site once owned by the father of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who helped slaves escape north via the Underground Railroad.
The agency’s team discovered the former home of Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, on property acquired in 2020 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or USFWA as an addition to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, MD.
The Nevada Department of Transportation and contractor Mead & Hunt are working to develop a “multiple property documentation form” or MPDF to help preserve Latino-related properties statewide, with a primary focus on the cities of Las Vegas and Reno.
[Above image via the Nevada DOT]
“This is an exciting new project that will pave the way for similar DOT projects throughout the country to preserve the rich cultural fabric of our communities across Nevada,” explained Cliff Creger, Nevada DOT’s chief of cultural resources, in a statement. “We are seeking input from the public on the important people and places to northern and southern Nevada’s Latino communities.”
He added that the resulting MPDF from that outreach seeks to reflect the way the Latino community defines the importance and use of properties. It also would cover how such properties are directly associated with Latino “themes” as well as their chronological periods in the historic contexts and/or which physical features convey distinctive design features.
The goal of the project is to build relationships within the Latino community, integrate the outreach findings and program into the MPDF, then develop a historical context for future transportation projects in Nevada.
This project also aims to “understand, explore, and propose criteria” to improve the “evaluation eligibility” of historical properties based on the Latino community’s unique past, standards, and values, the agency added.
“We understand that the architectural history representation of the Latino culture is unique to its own past and can be understood from its own standards and values,” Creger noted.
This particular cultural outreach project undertaken by Nevada DOT is reflective of similar efforts by state departments of transportation nationwide.
For example, the Colorado Department of Transportation debuted a documentary called “Durango 550 – Path of the Ancestral Puebloans” in January to show how the agency worked with archaeologists and regional Native American tribes to document, study, and ultimately share the discoveries unearthed near Durango in southwest Colorado.
“This documentary shows the unique collaboration of all entities involved, laying the groundwork for a new approach to archaeology, blending western science with traditional cultural beliefs,” explained Greg Wolff, a Colorado DOT archaeologist, in a statement.
In July 2021, the Ohio Department of Transportation helped open the new 54-mile-long Quaker Heritage Scenic Byway that seeks to foster a “new awareness” of cultural and historical diversity in rural southwest Ohio with stops along the way telling the story of Quakers who migrated to the region from the late 18th to the late 20th centuries.
That project helped reveal numerous layers of local history such as Quaker interactions with Native American communities, agriculture and land use, abolitionism, and religious practices – all identified through historical research, digital mapping, and told through “interactive” narratives.
Finally, the latest episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP Podcast discussed ways state DOT cultural resources programs are exploring to identify and preserve homes built in the 30 years following World War II that may have potential historical significance.
The Colorado Department of Transportation recently debuted a documentary called “Durango 550 – Path of the Ancestral Puebloans” to show how the agency worked with archaeologists and regional Native American tribes to document, study, and ultimately share the discoveries unearthed near Durango in southwest Colorado.
“This documentary shows the unique collaboration of all entities involved, laying the groundwork for a new approach to archaeology, blending western science with traditional cultural beliefs,” explained Greg Wolff, a Colorado DOT archaeologist, in a statement. “Tribal members frequently visited the project area during the excavations. Tribal elders contributed traditional knowledge, experience, and spiritual guidance to the archaeologists and other project staff members.”
The documentary features several tribal representatives involved in the project and other tribal members who worked and trained as paid interns, participating in both the excavations and educational outreach. The documentary also touched upon tribal youth groups involved with the excavation.
The 30-minute documentary – created by the Grit and Thistle Film Company – aired on the Rocky Mountain PBS station on January 16 and will air again on March 17. It is also available for viewing on the television station’s website and mobile app.
“Trying and laborious” perhaps best describes the months-long research and digging conducted in search of the home of a young Harriett Tubman by the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
[Above photo by the Maryland DOT]
In 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) purchased the 2,600-acre Peter’s Neck site within that refuge for $6 million – an area where historians thought Tubman’s childhood home might be located. That is why a year later, Marcia Pradines – the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge complex project leader for the USFWS – asked the Maryland DOT for archeological help in potentially uncovering the young Tubman’s home.
“I asked the state for assistance when I learned they had the interest and capacity to do so,” Pradines said. “It’s been a wonderful partnership.”
Tubman – born in 1822 and originally named Araminta Ross – was an escaped slaved who became one of the most famous American abolitionists and political activists. She used a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad to transport freed slaves to Northern states and served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army during the American Civil War.
While Tubman’s years as an abolitionist, spy, and later as a women’s suffrage activist are well known, relatively little is about her childhood.
That all changed in November 2020 due to the persistent efforts of a Maryland DOT SHA research team.
The extensive digging in the muck by the Maryland DOT SHA crew at the Peter’s Neck site turned up a coin from 1808; specifically a 50-cent “Liberty” coin. Then the archelogy crew discovered a chip from a broken ceramic piece, soon followed by other small artifacts.
After a lull in the project, Maryland DOT SHA researchers returned to the site – a one-time timber farm that had now become marshlands – in March 2021 to continue digging, finally striking pay dirt: the remains of the Ben Ross home, so named for Tubman’s father, still relatively intact. Tubman lived on the site with her family; a place where she began learning how to navigate what became known as the Underground Railroad.
Julie Schablitsky, chief of the Cultural Resources Division for Maryland DOT, explained during a recent press event that she and her crew heard about the potential location of the Ross cabin at the Peter Neck’s site just before COVID-19 hit. After the USFWS asked for their assistance, her team got busy: donning mosquito netting and rubber boots to dig away in the swampland to see if remains of Tubman’s home could be found.
“It was very wet, very foggy and very muddy” digging the five-foot-by-five-foot holes, Schablitsky explained – all in an effort to find what turned out to be archeological gold.
This chapter of Tubman’s story began with plantation owner Anthony Thompson leaving the enslaved Ross 10 acres (known as “Ben’s 10”) in his will. That act gave the Maryland DOT SHA team some idea where the house was.
The team dug “hole and hole after hole,” said Schablitsky, and eventually found that coin from 1808 – the approximate year “when Tubman’s parents were married,” she noted. “Then we found the bits of ceramics.”
When the Maryland DOT SHA crew returned in early spring this year, they resumed digging and found more artifacts, including furniture and other housewares. While small, those bits and pieces equate to the bigger story, Schablitsky pointed out that the real question is, “How do we learn more? Sometimes the answer is archaeology.”
Her team continues learning more of the cabin site, which “about 20 to 25 percent” excavated, she said. It lies in a scenic area near Harrisville Road, an area today surrounded by woods and extensive waterfalls. Historically, it would have been in a wooded area not accessible by water.
With the refocus on Tubman heightening the public’s interest, the current state of the site makes for what Schablitsky termed “a treacherous journey,” including about a one-mile walk through knee-deep water to reach the site. However, there are “creative ways” to make it accessible for pedestrians. “We have a trail laid out and are looking for funding,” she said.
The descendants of the Tubman family are equally excited about the findings and what the future may hold for them.
Tina Wyatt, Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece and Ross’ great-great-great-great-granddaughter, spoke for the family at the press event.
“[The news] brings enlightenment, revealing how [Ross] lived his daily life, making it a real-life connection to and for me,” Wyatt said. “The world benefits also from the study of these artifacts concerning objects used by the enslaved; are they common to this plantation, to his position or to this region? It gives us so much more to explore, explain and exhibit.”
As for the site and the artifacts, she added that what has been found looks “Pretty much untouched from when the family was there,” Wyatt noted, emphasizing that Tubman “embraced not the circumstances, but the environment.
“For something so horrific [as slavery to happen] to her people,” Wyatt said. “It’s great to be there now.”
Plans for tourists and historians who want to visit the site are being discussed, said USFWS’s Pradines, as Maryland DOT archeologists plan to return to the dig for further excavation in late fall or spring 2022.
Establishing a timeline for the preservation of the property is critical as well, for the Ross cabin resides in an area predicted to naturally convert to marsh with parts remaining forested into the year 2100.
With the cost to open the approach and the site to the public hovering around an estimated at $200,000 – getting tour buses in could make it a multi-million dollar job – Pradines spoke of establishing a trail system with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service.
“We want to honor those stories and create new ones for birders, hunters and tourists,” she noted.
“This land has rich stories to tell,” Pradines pointed out, from the days of the Native Americans to the Ross family to the first state forester. “We want people to visit [and] we also want to preserve to the integrity of the site,” she said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation recently made a major historical discovery at an old Civil War fort uncovered in the median of Interstate 64 near Williamsburg: A “witch bottle.” The superstition surrounding this rare artifact dates back hundreds of years to 17th century England when such “counter magical devices” served as “protection” against witchcraft and evocation.
[Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation.]