- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Sifting through dark, damp soil at the bottom of a 5-foot-deep pit, Caroline Wrightson breaks into a broad grin as she finds a treasure a small piece of white earthenware decorated in an elaborate pale green pattern.
It goes into a brown bag along with a bone, a small elixir bottle, a fragment of Chinese-export porcelain and a piece of a green glass bottle.
These items might seem like a meager reward for working on a hot, humid August day at the bottom of a 19th-century privy.
But not to Ms. Wrightson, who was participating in an archaeological dig on a vacant, downtown lot that was home to a group of free blacks in the mid-1800s.
"It doesn't feel like a job. It's just so much fun," Ms. Wrightson said.
The dig next door to the Banneker-Douglas Museum of African-American History and Culture is part of an archaeology program begun in 1981 by the University of Maryland and Historic Annapolis.
Program studies are aimed at all segments of Annapolis' population from its earliest days, but since 1988 "there has been a concerted effort to address the history of African-Americans in Annapolis," said Eric Larson, a doctoral student supervising the dig.
The digs around town are helping archaeologists slowly piece together a picture of what life was like for blacks in the days of slavery and the Jim Crow segregation following the Civil War.
The vacant lot next to the museum measures only about 80 feet by 100 feet, but it once contained three houses and part of a fourth. It was part of a larger community located just off Church Circle, within sight of the State House in the heart of the city.
"These were middle-class and working-class people who weren't going to make it into the history books," said Andrew Madsen, one of those involved in the dig.
But they had a stable neighborhood which dates back to 1832 and which continued as a predominantly black residential area into the 20th century, he said. The area now contains a mixture of commercial and county government buildings.
Free blacks established the community, which expanded in the mid-1800s as other slaves gained freedom. Some were bought out of slavery by relatives, some were freed by their owners and others earned enough money to buy their freedom.
The bits and pieces of the past uncovered in painstaking, layer-by-layer excavation of the soil along with oral histories handed down through generations of black Annapolitans are helping fill out a portrait of what life was like during the harsh years of slavery and the rigid segregation that followed.
Work ended Aug. 10 on the dig next to the Banneker-Douglas Museum because the lot will be used for an addition.
Archaeologists at the University of Maryland College Park will spend months analyzing the fragments of history dug up over the last two summers, Mr. Larson said.
Already they have learned much from the buttons, bones and fragments of glass plucked from the site.
"We know there was a degree of self-reliance in the community," Mr. Larson said. "We know it sustained itself through harsh times, but not details of how it was done."
Bones offer clues to the relative affluence of the residents.
"They will tell us what kinds of meat they were eating: Was it low-end or high-end cuts?" said Kristoffer Beadenkopf, a student who spent the summer giving tours of the site.
Shards of dishes are another indication of economic status. Some residents of the neighborhood had enough money to buy matched sets of dishes.
Mr. Larson said pieces of glass recovered at the site indicate that residents bought a high percentage of nationally produced food and household items.
"Maybe that was to circumvent racism in the local markets," he ventured.
Blacks living in a segregated society could be sure of what they were getting if it was produced and packaged nationally. But if they bought from local merchants, Mr. Larson said, there was no guarantee they would get full measure or quality goods.
On the last day of the dig, activity centered on the privy.
With no garbage pickup, privies were a dumping ground for food, refuse and broken dishes.
"The things we are getting out of here are wonderful. I like to say that privies are like time capsules," Mr. Beadenkopf said.
The top of a broken bottle probably came from the mid-1800s, he said. It can be dated by the irregular top that was added after the rest of the bottle was molded.
A piece of Chinese porcelain suggests that one resident was affluent enough to spend some money on luxuries.
The bigger pieces are recovered by workers using their bare hands, dust pans and whisk brooms to sift through the dirt. The soil is then shoveled into buckets and put through a sieve, producing smaller fragments of the past.
Some of the dirt will be taken to the university, where researchers will recover items so small that they fell through the screen in the sieve. To an archaeologist, even the tiniest fragments help fill in the picture of what life was like in the 1800s in that one area of Annapolis.
Eventually, some of the artifacts will be displayed at the Banneker-Douglas museum, curator Elizabeth Stewart said.
"They will really provide insights into how African-Americans lived," Ms. Stewart said. "It's stuff like this that people can really respond to."


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