The Importance of Context and Meaning at Eutaw Farm
Since 2014, the Herring Run Archeology Project has brought volunteers and visitors of all ages and all walks of life together at the Eutaw Farm Site (Eutaw), 18BC183, in Northeast Baltimore’s Herring Run Park. Eutaw has been occupied for thousands of years and the archeological data we’ve recovered there tells many stories, but the most abundant information at the site pertains to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the house, farm, and outbuildings at Eutaw belonged to the Smith and Hall families. The house burned down in 1865, and no one ever rebuilt on the site, preserving the integrity of the artifacts and features left in the ground.
Figure 1. Volunteers excavating at the Eutaw Farm Site.
The stories of the Smith and Hall families, while important, are well-documented in land records, family papers, newspaper articles, and other archival sources, as well as in the archeological record. What is less well-documented is the history of the Distance and Gittings families, who were among the enslaved people who lived at Eutaw with the Hall family from the 18th century until at least 1850.
To disentangle the entwined histories of the enslaved and the enslavers, we knew it was important to find the connections between artifacts and features. We conducted detailed recordation and analyses of the complex relationships between soil layers and the locations of artifacts in the ground. These are the pieces of information we need in order to develop an understanding of the context of an artifact or group of artifacts. Below are only a few examples of how important context has been to our interpretation of the Eutaw site.
We recovered a well-preserved collection of nails from the area in and around the house. Nails are temporally diagnostic, which means that by mapping the locations and characteristics of the nails, we know which sections of the house were older, when new additions were built, when repairs were made, and where the wooden floorboards separating each story of the house were located. The distribution of other building materials helped determine the locations of chimneys, doorways, and porches. By mapping the locations of where approximately 33,000 artifacts were found within the footprint of the house, we recreated the house room by room. Once we understood the layout, we began to see how space was divided between enslavers and enslaved.
Through this careful map of artifacts, we can tell the story of Emeline (Gittings) Jones, who was born enslaved at Eutaw ca. 1837. She became a world renowned chef who introduced traditional Chesapeake cuisine to the international stage. Since we understand the context of the artifacts recovered from the kitchen at Eutaw, we know what Emeline’s first kitchen experience looked like, what kinds of foods were prepared there, and even what the pots, pans, and dishes looked like. We know where in the house she was likely born, and where she lived and worked as a child. We can tell something of the lives of Emeline’s mother, Henrietta Gittings, and Henrietta’s parents, Emeline and Cyrus Distance, as well. The spaces where they lived and worked were located in the cellar, and in a kitchen addition on the northeast side of the main house.
A concealed rectangular pit beneath the floorboards in the cellar contained a wishbone, the jawbone of an opossum, a piece of lead, four white buttons (two shell, two pressed glass), a piece of red jasper, a quartz flake, a pierced bronze disc, a partial iron disc, a piece of blue-and-white porcelain, a slate pencil, and a small clothing fastener. Taken out of context, these items are entirely unremarkable, but in context, they point significantly to a ritual practice associated with the management of spirits in the household. Fragments of children’s alphabet china, ceramic strawberry pots, and a cowrie shell suggest the importance of education, cultivation, and family tradition. Each of these items holds deep meaning because of the many other objects that were found with them in the location where the Gittings and Distances lived and worked. Without knowing exactly where they came from, we could not connect these artifacts with the people who used them.
Figure 2. Concealed rectangular pit beneath the cellar floorboards at the Eutaw Farm Site.
Our project has been somewhat successful in building support for archeological resources and preservation in the communities around Herring Run Park; many of our volunteers are dismayed to learn how few protections exist for archeological resources, and how little most people understand their significance or vulnerability. Local news outlets and even museums have recently encouraged the work of privy diggers and relic hunters, whose techniques may be able to reveal what an artifact is, but not what it means.
When we remove artifacts from the ground without noting their context, we are destroying the material remains of someone’s lived experience, and a meaningful point of connection between ourselves and our shared past. The stories that are most likely to be lost by careless excavation are those that were never written down in the first place, which means that people who had no voice in the past will never be heard in the present or the future. The opportunity to tell their stories can be wiped out in an instant, and all of us are impoverished when we don’t get to learn what they might have told us.
These losses are not inevitable; many of our volunteers have spent years working with us to document and protect Eutaw and other archeological sites in the park. People care about these important resources and want to protect and learn from them, and consistent archeological outreach can help them do that.