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  • Katherine Sterner

Richard Stearns' Archeological Field Methods and Recordation

In 1943, Richard Stearns, a professional photographer and avocational archeologist, documented 21 archeological sites along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in The Natural History Society of Maryland Proceeding No. 9: Some Indian Village Sites of Tidewater Maryland. In this 74-page publication, he included maps of all of the site locations, as well as photographs of several of the artifacts recovered and a general description of each of the sites. One of these sites was Conowingo, now 18CE14. Stearns’ investigations of the site consisted solely of controlled surface collection. He provided a detailed description of the site, noting that “This site, one of the largest in Maryland, is situated on the east bank of the Susquehanna River…[on] a large flood plain, averaging one-quarter mile in width, extending southward from the [Conowingo] dam. During the flood…nearly the whole of the northern half of the site was washed away,” along with a basic map (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Stearns’ Map of the Conowingo Site.


Stearns describes numerous artifacts recovered from the site but provides no further description of their provenience within the site. A total of 900 artifacts from this site remain in the Natural History Society of Maryland collections, although Stearns reports recovering over 3,500 artifacts. Based on the temporally diagnostic pottery and projectile points from the site, the Conowingo site was occupied during the Middle Archaic through the Late Woodland (ca. 7000 BC - AD 1600) periods. Site residents gathered the raw materials for making their stone tools from fairly local sources and seemed to confine their raw material sources to tributaries of the Susquehanna River. The large quantity of steatite vessels, argillite stone picks, and unfinished bannerstones suggests that the site served as a ground stone production center among other functions. Unfortunately, there is very little else archeologists can say about the site or the people who resided there though.


In his 1943 Proceedings, Stearns also discussed investigations at the Fort Smallwood site, a concentration of three shell deposits (now 18AN273, 18AN274, and 18AN275). In addition to several years of surface collection at Fort Smallwood, Stearns was able to conduct excavations there. The quantity of artifacts recovered from 18AN274 was comparable to that recovered from Conowingo. However, the artifacts from Fort Smallwood were never moved to a public repository for long term curation and thus are no longer available for study. We do have Stearns’ records about the site though.


Even though the quantity and variety of artifacts recovered from Conowingo and 18AN274 are comparable, the quantity and quality of the inferences we can make about the two sites are very different due to the way Stearns conducted and recorded his field investigations. Stearns describes several subsurface features, such as a hearth “black from charcoal” beneath the “surrounding shell refuse” and pits that were “packed with shell…and contained some charcoal, bone, and sherds.” Based on photographs (Figure 2) the pottery sherds from the site consist almost entirely of Mockley wares, dating to the Middle Woodland period (ca. AD 200 – 900). The few diagnostic projectile points from the site do not conflict with this assignment of time period.


Figure 2. Pottery from the Fort Smallwood Site.


The placement of the three shell concentrations at the Fort Smallwood site, each containing a fire pit and trash pits for disposing of the cooking waste with other artifacts spread between the concentrations suggests distinct activity areas as a part of a larger site (Figure 3). People at the site were confining their cooking and disposal activities to these discrete areas. We know what they were eating (mostly deer and oysters), when they were eating it (the Middle Woodland period), and how they were cooking it (in fire pits with pottery for food storage and/or preparation). This is a wealth more detail than we have about Conowingo, where we have no information about what activities were at the site or how they were spatially organized.


Figure 3. Stearns’ Map of the Fort Smallwood Site.


Archeologists use artifacts that we call “material culture” to tell dynamic stories about the activities of past peoples. When the context of archeological discoveries is lost, archeologists lose the ability to identify the spatial relationships between features on the landscape and the association of artifacts with ecofacts like bone and shell, and the dynamic stories about the past are reduced to static rocks and pots with their stories limited to individual objects minimally situated in time and space, disconnected from people and place. Stearns’ records from his investigations were variable, but revolutionary for their time. Those records give us a window into the daily life of past humans that goes beyond rocks and pots.

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