Uncovering the past at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Mollie McNeel
Medill Reports

Travel about an hour southeast of Baltimore and you’ll end up in a small Maryland town called Edgewater. Keep driving past the city limits and you’ll see a brown sign on the side of the road indicating that somewhere in the thick forrest to your left is the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center where I am an embedded reporter. A long windy drive with exactly nine turns will lead you to a clearing full of lab buildings and dormitories–my home for the next month.

May 2, 2018, Edgewater, Maryland. My first week as SERC has been a whirlwind of adjusting to dorm living (once again), meeting scientists and figuring out which of the many high-stakes research projects I will be reporting about. But one exciting event came Wednesday as I joined the team at the SERC archaeology lab.

I arrived at the old house turned work center around 9 a.m.—a few minutes before everyone really began arriving. As I watched each person walk through the old screen door, it was clear that they were genuinely happy to be there. But what I didn’t realize is that they were all volunteers. The SERC archaeology lab is run by “citizen scientists” under the direction of Dr. Jim Gibb, a senior archaeologist.

The Sellman house where the Archaeology lab is located. Photo by Mollie McNeel

The day was spent inside instead of at one of the dig sites excavating oyster shells, nails, ceramics and tobacco pipes–all evidence of a structure inhabited by humans. The digs needed to dry out after stormy weather the night before. “Go get your hands dirty” was my only instruction, so I followed two others into the “kitchen” where a large wooden table sat with buckets of artifacts at one end.

“We are going to wash everything we found last week” said one of the more experienced volunteers. After a quick tutorial on how to scrub the brick, glass and pottery just right I grabbed my toothbrush and began cleaning. While the puzzle pieces of the past may seem like rubble, they are giving clues to a picture of life during the 17th century.

Pieces of glass that are believed to have once been a wine bottle. Photo by Mollie McNeel

We found lots (and lots and lots) of brick pieces which mean there was some type of structure on the property. We found green and blue glass shards—some small and some large—which were used for wine and medicines. The most exciting piece for me was finding nails that had been handcrafted leading the archaeology team to believe this site was actually the blacksmith’s shop!

Brick rubble found during the dig. Photo by Mollie McNeel

As my time with the archaeology lab came to a close I had a new appreciation for the old structures around me. Seeing these people talk of who the blacksmith could have been and what it took to make these rusty nails we were holding made me realize history is not lost, we just have to dig for it.