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The State of the States
Summer 1999

Online Archive

*  New Digs for Old Artifacts

(photo) Native American tribal member circa 1908.

"There were more battles, skirmishes, and troop movements [in Tennessee] than in any other state except Virginia. And that, of course, is reflected in the potential number of sites. "

Sam Smith

by Julia A. King

In 1998, the Maryland Historical Trust's brand new Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory was dedicated at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard, Maryland. Governor Parris N. Glendening and Mrs. Jefferson Patterson hosted the event and the legendary Louis L. Goldstein, late comptroller of the state, served as master of ceremonies. The dignitaries joined archeologists, community leaders, state and congressional legislators, and nearly 500 other citizens to celebrate the opening of this extraordinary new facility.

The 38,000-square-foot complex offers state-of-the-art capabilities for archeological research, conservation, and collections storage. It represents a substantial investment by Maryland's citizens in the study, interpretation, and preservation of the state's priceless archeological heritage. The cost, however, was surprisingly not as expensive as you might think, and reflects creative planning, a private-public partnership, and careful monitoring from start to finish.

It all began with this basic question: what was happening to Maryland's collections once they were out of the ground? Everybody agrees they are scientifically and historically valuable, and that their recovery in many cases requires substantial expense. New understandings and methods, developed almost every year in archeology, guarantees their future value. So then, where were these collections going?

In 1986, archeologists with the Maryland Historical Trust, the state's lead agency for preservation, set out to answer the question. For decades, archeological investigations in Maryland had generated important collections. A survey found many of them in basements, closets, garages, abandoned buildings, and even in a u-store-it facility. Containers were torn, mixed, decomposing, and, in some cases, bug-infested. A few even remained in the possession of the archeologists who had excavated the sites!

No one knew precisely how many collections existed. No one really knew their contents. The state's division of archeology, housed in the department of natural resources, had a collections manager, but no one was directly responsible for the many other collections in the state's possession. About the only certainty was uncertainty, and the depressing conclusion that the state's valuable archeological heritage was inaccessible to researchers, students, and educators.

J. Rodney Little, the state preservation officer and director of the trust, was appalled by the inadequate care. Little, an architectural historian by training, has a deep appreciation for material culture of all kinds. Recognizing the potential loss of information, he directed Wayne E. Clark and Michael A. Smolek to develop plans for a state-of-the-art facility.

But where could such a facility be located at the lowest cost? Fortunately, the state had just received a very generous donation of land along the Patuxent River in Calvert County from Mrs. Jefferson Patterson. This extraordinary gift, now known as the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, was to be developed as a state museum of history and archeology. All parties quickly agreed that no better place could be found. In 1987, then Governor William Donald Schaefer, an archeology enthusiast, directed that planning should commence.

The park's master plan was amended to include developing the new lab. The Maryland General Assembly appropriated funds for building design and the Baltimore architectural firm of Ayers/Saint/Gross was hired. The mission was to come up with a building with state-of-the-art capabilities, keeping in mind the importance of public expense. The architects and JPPM staff conducted workshops, toured labs in the United States and Canada, and investigated the latest techniques in archeological analysis, conservation, and collections management.

In 1993 and once again in 1996, the Maryland assembly appropriated funds for construction. Approximately $3.5 million were used to install infrastructure and to renovate an associated complex of agricultural buildings (see sidebar). A second appropriation funded the construction of the lab proper. On January 27, 1998, the building contractor officially turned the facility over to the Trust. On May 8 of that year, the facility was dedicated to the citizens of Maryland.

Now that the new lab is open, archeologists have unprecedented access to collections and specialized equipment. Staff estimate that over 3.5 million artifacts and associated documentation are curated there. The lab serves as a clearinghouse for archeological collections recovered from both state and federal projects in Maryland. It also houses a number of major collections acquired through private donation. All are now available for research, education, and exhibit purposes. Some of the capabilities of the lab are described here.


The lab includes the Southern Maryland Regional Center as well as the Research Department of the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Archeologists from these programs have excavated a number of sites in the southern part of the state, ranging from small prehistoric Native American oyster roasting pits to the 17th century brick mansion of Lord Baltimore. Thousands of acres in the fast-growing region have been surveyed, with hundreds of new sites identified. In the lab, staff archeologists perform specialized analysis to reconstruct past diets and environments, determine use-wear on stone tools, and examine pottery microscopically to discover its geographical origins, to cite only a few examples.

There are several specialized facilities within the lab complex. A materials science laboratory is available to analyze materials for conservation treatments and for archeological research. It is equipped with microscopes, thin-sectioning equipment, and an ultraviolet photospectrometer. A paleo-environmental laboratory is set up to develop a comparative collection of animal bones and plants and to analyze material such as pollen samples.

The research staff regularly publish the results of their work for both professional and lay audiences. In addition to the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, staff have published their discoveries in Historical Archaeology, Archaeometry, Agricultural History, and Maryland Archaeology. Many of these publications can be purchased at the lab, and all are available in the library.


The conservation of artifacts from sites, particularly underwater sites, requires equipment and training different from traditional fine arts conservation. Archeological artifacts are often extremely fragile and subject to rapid decay once removed from where they have rested for hundreds or even thousand of years. Artifacts must be stabilized, cleaned, and conserved for future study and exhibition. Treatments include removing harmful contaminants such as salts, structurally supporting fragile artifacts such as leather and textiles, and stabilizing oxidized metals and water-saturated, degraded wood.

Examination and treatment of objects is accomplished through the use of analytical equipment, including density meters to monitor concentration of solutions, pH and conductivity meters, microscopes and probes to measure wood moisture, dissolved oxygen and other factors that affect the condition of degraded objects. An overhead crane with a five-ton capacity travels the length and breadth of the large treatment laboratory to facilitate safe handling of heavy objects. A 320-KV industrial x-ray unit in a lead-lined room provides a view of the internal structure of objects for examination and analysis. Two freeze-drying units, the larger measuring four by twelve feet, are used for drying and treating organic artifacts. Mounting and support of fragile artifacts is accomplished through the use of a vacuum hot table. Walk-in refrigeration and freezing units are available for holding artifacts in stable storage environments.

Collections Management

Maryland's valuable archeological collections are available to the state's citizens for research, education, and exhibition. The lab's collections management program provides for both accessibility and safekeeping. Collections managers routinely accept, assess, and monitor the artifact collections. This includes loans to other institutions.

The lab uses Re:discovery, a computerized collections management software system installed on a local area network, to control artifact inventory and other records. The network allows staff and visiting researchers access to a unified database, so that the location and status of the 3.5 million artifacts are known at all times.

Once artifacts are stabilized and/or conserved, collections must be stored in an environment that prevents their degradation. Suitable temperature and humidity conditions are carefully maintained and monitored. Collections housed in archivally stable boxes are stored on compactible shelving to maximize use of space. Oversized artifacts, such as shipwreck remains and architectural pieces, are stored in specialized packaging on separate shelving units.


The library contains thousands of volumes on archeology, local history, conservation, and material culture. The library catalog, recently computerized, will soon be available over the Internet. The library is open to the public on a non-lending basis. Researchers wishing to use the library should contact the staff. The facility's meeting room/classroom is designed to host meetings and educational programs. With a maximum capacity of approximately 80 persons, the meeting room is equipped with audio-visual equipment and a sound system. The meeting room is also available for use by outside groups on a limited basis.

Study offices are available to outside researchers desiring to use the collections. The visiting scientist/scholar room can accommodate two researchers with space for analysis and writing. Scholars wishing to work with the collections on long-term projects are encouraged to contact the staff about use of the room.

The lab represents a new era in archeolgoical discovery in Maryland. Although excavations will always be conducted, the increased access to collections presents an unparalleled opportunity for even more detailed research on the state's rich heritage.

For more information, contact Dr. Julia A. King, Chief of Archaeological Services, Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, 10515 Mackall Rd., St. Leonard, MD 20685, (410) 586-8551, fax (410) 586-3643, e-mail king@dhcd.state.md.us