Maryland History, Bit by Bit

Maryland History, Bit by Bit

Maryland’s heritage isn’t just about historic homes and major cultural events. Sometimes the smallest objects tell the most interesting stories. 

Sara Rivers-Cofield, one of the curators at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab in Calvert County, has an uncanny ability to identify so-called “small finds.”  

Small finds are the unique artifacts from an archaeological dig that stand out from the typical pottery shards or fragments of glass because they are not found in such high quantities. The problem is that, when these artifacts are discovered, they’re often so corroded or broken that it’s impossible to say what they once were. Frequently, they go unidentified or, worse, mislabeled in some museum or cultural collection. 

But when visitors or other researchers bring one of these unidentified objects to Sara, she often says, “I know what that is.” This affinity has earned her a reputation among her colleagues as something of a small finds expert. 

Of course, until we took a tour of the MAC Lab last month, Dawn and I had never even heard the term “small find.” The lab is a state-of-the-art conservation facility that serves as the repository for all archaeologic artifacts found on state or federal land in Maryland. That includes everything from 17th Century tools and fragments of pottery to massive cannons recovered from sunken ships. 

Sometimes, the collection even includes large parts of the ship itself. 

Perhaps more important, the MAC lab has the high-test tools required to preserve and restore all these artifacts: A massive X-ray machine for the big metal bits. Great vats of polyethylene glycol in which massive beams of wood soak to remove the salt. The largest freeze-drier on the East Coast. 

The MAC Lab is part of the fabulous Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, but it isn’t exactly a public museum. Nevertheless, the lab holds free tours of the facility every Thursday and it was on one of those tours that Dawn and I first heard about Sara. 

The Range 

The tour began in the range, a long, brightly-lit room with white-topped workbenches in the center, metal storage cabinets on three sides, and a long glass display case along one wall full of some of the lab’s larger, more complete artifacts. 

The range serves as a sort of reference library to help researchers — or even just regular citizens — identify historic artifacts. It’s like some nature centers that have drawers full of stuffed birds and small animals to help nature lovers identify wildlife, except in this case the drawers are full of fragments of the material culture of Maryland: 17th Century stoneware, 18th Century toys, 19th Century pipestems etc.  

Since we were the only ones who showed up for the tour, the MAC Lab’s head docent Christa Conant took her time showing us around. With obvious enthusiasm, she rummaged through cabinet after cabinet, pulling out drawers willy-nilly to show us her favorite artifacts. And as she told the stories behind the collections, Sara’s name came up over and over again. It seemed like most of Christa’s best stories were about Sara’s seemingly preternatural ability to identify even the most obscure item.  

Christa showed us a tiny bit of corroded metal that was randomly speckled with blue and white dots. She explained that when one of the other researchers showed it to Sara, she said, “I know what that is.” Then she went and got a picture of a basket made of wires that were strung with blue and white beads. 

Intrigued, we decided to come back to the MAC Lab again to meet Sara and talk about her work. It took a little while to set up, but we’re glad we did. 

Collections 

Sara has been an archaeologist almost her entire life. When she was a child, her parents had a blueberry and lumber farm in rural Maine. Once, there had been an old homestead on the property; so, in the summers, while her parents harvested blueberries, she used to go dig for artifacts. She has a picture of herself sitting on the ground amid her collection — hundreds of fragments of ceramic and pottery, some of them put back together with Elmer’s glue. 

The photo now embarasses her. That’s because, as a child, she didn’t know that half the work of being an archaeologist is keeping track of where the artifacts came from. How deep did you dig? What else did you find in that location? Without that context, the artifacts are worthless, Sara explained. 

“All of that is fine when you’re 10,” she says. “But when you’re a professional archaeologist, it makes you think, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I really did that!’” 

Nevertheless, she was hooked. 

After studying archaeology in Kentucky, she spent several years as a field archaeologist. That field work — the digs with the brushes and the trowels — is the romantic, Raiders of the Lost Ark side of archaeology. But it was really when she got to the MAC Lab that Sara hit her stride professionally.  

She was hired to serve as curator for the lab’s federal collection. By law, whenever there’s major construction on federal land, specialists are brought in to make sure the project doesn’t destroy a significant archaeological site. If they still decide to build on one of these sites, federal and state laws usually require them to excavate and preserve the artifacts.  

That’s the story behind the MAC Lab. In most states, these collections are scattered among several repositories — universities and small museums. But because it’s a small state, Maryland decided to build one large, state-of-the-art facility to serve as the repository for any artifacts recovered from state land. Federal agencies, like the Navy and the Federal Highway Administration, contract with the lab to curate their collections. The lab now hosts more than 10 million artifacts, about 1 million of which are under Sara’s care. 

One of her biggest interests now is promoting the use of collections among professional archaeologists. Field work has always been the sexy part of the profession, but after they dig up all those artifacts, they often end up in a repository like the MAC Lab. In fact, the MAC Lab is about as good as it gets, Sara told us. 

Rather than go out in the field, she said, why not take advantage of its enormous, carefully curated collection for your research? To make her point, she’s been using her spare time to publish her own research based largely on unidentified or mislabeled items in the MAC Lab’s collection. 

Small Finds 

As an example, Sara showed us a couple small bits of metal that came from the old Addison-Oxon Hill plantation, one of Maryland’s premier archaeological sites. When we saw them, they had already been through the conservation process, but when they entered the collection they were probably deeply corroded and misshapen. 

“I like to study metal,” Sara said. “That’s how I got into small finds. And that site had all these little metal pieces that had interesting shapes to them. When I started looking at the X-rays of them, I figured out they came from a trunk and these were the decorative hinges on it. I also found decorative locks” 

It turned out, these metal pieces were collected from a site on the plantation where a house had burned down in 1730. “The family that lived there were tobacco planters,” Sara said. “But they were also merchants, and every year ships went out with tobacco and came back with imports. Those imports came in casks and hogsheads and trunks like this.” 

Once she figured out the metal pieces came from a trunk, she went to work trying to understand the context. To an archaeologist, that means going back to the unit — the map of the five-foot by five-foot excavation site showing exactly where the metal pieces were discovered. That information, combined with provenience — archaeological jargon for how deep the metal pieces were buried — allowed Sara to identify the other artifacts associated with them. 

“And when I looked at the other artifacts affiliated with that provenience,” she said, “they were all wine bottles. That’s when I realized this was a trunk used to import wine bottles.” 

Sara led us to cabinet across the room to show us what she meant. Inside were dozens of big, fat-bottomed glass wine bottles from the 18th Century, not too different from the bottles that Thomas Jefferson would have imported to fill his famous wine cellar. 

Most of the bottles were broken and in pieces. “They were all crushed because they were down in the cellar and the whole building fell on top of them after the fire,” Sara said. 

Even so, they were beautiful. That’s because, as it ages, glass delaminates and the differential defraction of light reflected off the bottles gives them the opalescent look of Roman glass. 

To show us what she meant, Sara marched us back to the big, climate-controlled warehouse at the back of the MAC Lab where most of the collections are housed. We had been back here on our tour with Christa, who showed us an amazing collection of Native American petroglyphs that had been collected from the banks of the Susquahanna River just before the building of the Conowingo Dam.  

Also, scattered across the floor of the warehouse were large pieces of a canal barge discovered in the mud of the C&O Canal and the paddlewheel of an old steamship. 

But Sara took us to the moving racks up in the mezzanine where she opened a cabinet to show us yet another collection of wine bottles. These were also from the Addison-Oxon Hill site, but because they were mostly intact, they were even more beautiful. 

Sara explained: “They’re whole because, in this particular case, bottles were thrown down a well and the well had good organic preservation.” 

Sara’s Greatest Hits 

Once we made it back to the range, we asked Sara to show us some of her favorite small finds. She quickly pulled out a short piece of hollow cylinder and set it on the workbench. It was clearly carved from bone. 

“This guy was in an exhibit for 20 years labeled as a ‘needle case’,” she said. “It’s standard practice in archaeology that if you have a hollow bone object like this you call it a needle case.” 

But Sara pointed out that her mother collects antique sewing tools and she had never seen a 19th Century needle case like this. “Particularly not from an 18th Century site, which is where this one came from,” she said.  

Like any 21st Century scientist, she googled “bone needle case,” but she didn’t see anything that looked like this artifact. But when she googled “lathe-turned bone”, what came up was exactly the same object.  

“It was a telescope!” Sara exclaimed. “It turns out there were these little spyglasses that wealthy people used in the 19th Century. It was all part of the Enlightenment Era, ‘I want to look at things,’ mindset. This one is missing at least one section, but you can see where the lens would have been.” 

The MAC Lab sometimes puts out Curator’s Choice posters to show people some of its more interesting discoveries. You can find them on the lab’s website. As it happens, this hollow piece of bone had already been featured in one of these posters as an “awesome bone needle case.” If you look at the website now, Sara has crossed out “needle case” and replaced it with “telescope.” 

Sara also brought out the beaded wire that Christa had shown us. She pointed out that part of what made it so cool was that researchers found it at the Smith’s St. Leonard Site, which is right on the JPPM property. She described the day researchers brought the artifact to her. 

I was like, ‘I know what that is!’ We had a book in the library that somebody had just donated and it had a picture of one of those beaded baskets. So, I went and pulled the book and showed it to them. ‘There you go,’ I said.” 

One of the most interesting of Sara’s small finds discoveries also came from that well on the Addison-Oxon Hill Plantation. She showed us a small cardboard box that contained what appeared to be the tip of the finger from a kid-skin glove. To give it shape, it was rolled over the end of tube of tissue paper. 

“When this came in, it was labeled ‘Paper?’ It’s not paper, though. I looked at it and said to myself, ’I think that might be a condom!’” 

Sara explained that, in the 18th Century, condoms were made from the cecum of a sheep. While humans have an appendix, a small deadend segment of the intestine, sheep have larger version called a cecum. “It’s a deadend,” she deadpanned, “but it’s longer. It’s just right.” 

It turns out that, in the 1700s, it was generally women in charge making condoms — which probably comes as no surprise to women. They carefully cured the cecum to make it more durable. Durable enough to survive almost intact for 300 years at the bottom of a well.  

For a long time, though, Sara’s condom theory was just that — a theory. DNA technology wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time to determine if the “Paper?” was really sheep cecum. Eventually, though, a team of women from the University of Tennessee solved the problem. 

“They used a technique called ZOOMS — Zoo-archaeological Mass Spectrometery — to test for collogen. They tested a small sample from the cecum and it was sheep.” 

That confirmation was just announced in January, six years after Sara made her identification. 

And that’s not the only “adult” object in the MAC Lab collection. While we were marveling over “the oldest surviving condom in America”, Sara pulled out a box containing a snaggle of short, rusty wires.  

“These were identified as ‘bed springs’ in the collection,” she said. “But it’s really a cilice.”  

 

She explained that a cilice is a kind of undergarment that was worn as a form of self-mutilation. The traditional example is the hairshirt worn by penitent monks. These were made of stiff, itchy burlap and intended to chafe and be uncomfortable. 

More deviant minds expanded on the idea of the hairshirt, devising elaborate cilices that looked more like chain mail, only with sharp, inward-pointing wires that dug into the skin of the wearer. 

The MAC Lab artifact came from a Jesuit site in Maryland, and it was a professor from Catholic University who confirmed it was a cilice. 

When Sara presented her work on the condom and the cilice at a professional conference — in a paper titled “Sex and Penitence” — she got the only press query of her career. You can read about her work in the January 2017 issue of Mental Floss.  

Dennis Hollier

Dennis Hollier

Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.

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