St. Mary’s City, MD – The fields of Historic St. Mary’s City might best be described as sacred.
A perfectly preserved example of early colonial history in the United States, most of what the 17th-century site has to tell us lies buried beneath fallow fields.
Since the late 1960s, archaeologists have labored in the summer sun unearthing remnants of the 1600s, a colony whose significance lay in an experiment of religious toleration. While not perfect, the system instituted by the Second Lord Baltimore, Cecilius Calvert, allowed those of different faiths to practice how they would. This helped the colony survive several rebellions until the Protestant Rebellion of 1689 eventually placed Maryland under crown rule, which lasted until the American Revolution.
Historic St. Mary’s is one of only two National Historic Landmarks in Maryland (The other is Accokeek) based solely on its archaeological remains.
“It is all because of the archaeology,” said Silas D. Hurry, curator of collections and archaeological laboratory director for Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC).
St. Mary’s City’s redeeming significance is that it survives at all.
Unlike Philadelphia; Plymouth and Boston in Massachusetts, the actual town of St. Mary’s was not overwhelmed by development. Because of the agricultural nature of the county for well into the 20th century, the ancient capital of Maryland was two feet down, well below the plow line and protected.
A proposed railroad in the 1880s (a project that failed due to bankruptcy) and a planned Slavonic development in the early 20th century that also failed, were just two of the threats to the site in over 350 years.
“We were quite fortunate in our failures,” Hurry noted. “The site was constantly saved by people attempting to develop and failing miserably.”
Since the 18th-century John Hicks site was excavated in the mid-1960s to build St. Mary’s College, archaeologists have been digging in the dirt for four decades and gathering that which they find into carefully labeled containers. Over the years the unearthed relics which tell early Maryland history have been stored in as many as five different locations at once. One of the most historically significant collections of artifacts in the state were kept in basements and other locations at HSMC until a new preservation lab could be built. Planning for the facility began in the 1990s and survived several setbacks as the state endured economic woes.
Now through a unique partnership with St. Mary’s College of Maryland, part of the newly constructed Anne Arundel Hall is housing—under tighter security and climate controlled conditions—Maryland’s most treasured artifacts estimated to number between 5 and 8 million.
The new lab—which contains everything from compressible storage cabinets to dust and vapor control and an X-ray machine to examine rust encrusted metal—will bring the collection together for the first time in many years.
“It is the best organized it has ever been,” Hurry said proudly.
Original plans for the facility included a new visitor’s center in the field next to Route 5, which he said will be forthcoming. Plans foresee a walkway from that facility to the archaeological lab where visitors will be able to stand on the front porch and watch conservators in action. In that room, Hurry pointed out shelves upon shelves of boxes unearthed from beneath where the new building stands.
“Those boxes are all from the archaeology of this building, which had to be done before we could construct it,” he pointed out.
There is also a unique feature to the new edifice most folks won’t appreciate unless they know the story.
In the historic town, one of the prominent streets was Middle Street.
The sidewalk leading from the new Anne Arundel Hall is constructed in an interesting pattern.
“That pattern was unearthed in the 1930s in the floor of Van Sweringen’s Inn, a colonial tavern in the 17th-century,” Hurry explained. “It was used in the reconstructed state house in 1934 and is also in use in this sidewalk,” he said, pointing out that the sidewalk crosses the parking lot and lines right up to Middle Street as it was known in the 17th century. The entire Anne Arundel complex is aligned to the 17th-century town plan.
Like the new laboratory, the present will hold remnants of the past.
Contact Joseph Norris at email@example.com