2016 Cultural Resources Hazard Mitigation Planning Grants Awarded

With funding from the National Park Service Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Fund, the Maryland Historical Trust has awarded seven grants throughout the state to help protect historic places and archeological sites from future storms. These grants will be supported by the Trust’s Cultural Resources Hazard Mitigation Planning Program, which was created to assist local governments to better plan and prepare for the effects of coastal storms and other hazards that impact historic places and properties. The grant projects are described below.

Anne Arundel

Early 20th century vernacular home common to Shady Side

Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation, Inc., Phase I Hazard Mitigation Planning for Anne Arundel’s Cultural Resources: $32,000
Three areas in the county (Shady Side and Deale; Pasadena; and Maryland City, Laurel, and Jessup) face the highest risk to flooding and contain the most undocumented historic structures, as well as unsurveyed potential archeological resources. To remedy this, the Anne Arundel County Trust for Preservation will conduct a study to identify historic structures and archeological sites and evaluate the potential damages caused by flooding. Continue reading

Prehistoric Ossuaries: A Personal Journey

by Dennis C. Curry, Chief Archeologist, Maryland Historical Trust

Theodor de Bry engraving of a John White watercolor, possibly showing an ossuary at Secotan.

Theodor de Bry engraving of a John White watercolor, possibly showing an ossuary at Secotan.

It’s funny how things work.  Some 20 years ago, in response to requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the archeology staff was compiling an inventory of human remains curated at MHT.  During that process, the extreme complexities of ossuary remains and sites led me to look at these unique features in Maryland.  The ultimate result was a book, Feast of the Dead: Aboriginal Ossuaries in Maryland.  Then about a decade ago I was asked to write a book chapter that would look at ossuaries from throughout the entire Middle Atlantic region.  Although that book project eventually died, I reworked my chapter and submitted it as an article to the journal Archaeology of Eastern North America, where it was recently published.  Below are some highlights.

Ossuaries are communal graves.  They are also secondary graves, meaning that the deceased were originally buried in individual graves before being exhumed and reinterred in a collective burial.  Early historical accounts of Huron ossuary burials (such as those by 17th century French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf) describe an elaborate burial ceremony referred to as the “Feast of the Dead.”  And while early explorers in the Middle Atlantic region do not mention ossuaries (they describe individual burials, and the deposition of “king’s” bodies in charnel houses), I think watercolorist John White inadvertently depicted an ossuary at the North Carolina village of Secotan in 1585.  There, he portrays a small plot (B) “where they assemble themselves to make their solemn prayers;” it is topped by a ceremonial fire and surrounded by wooden posts carved with human faces, and it is adjacent to a structure (A) “wherein are the tombs of their kings and princes.”  Each of these characteristics has been documented archeologically at various ossuary sites.

Today, ossuaries are typically encountered by accident, such as at this house construction site on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Today, ossuaries are typically encountered by
accident, such as at this house construction site on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

One advantage to looking at ossuary sites from a large region (the core of the Middle Atlantic runs from Cape Henlopen, Delaware to Cape Fear, North Carolina) is that trends start to appear.  One thing that I noticed throughout the region was that ossuaries consistently occur in one of three settings: in isolated locations, within village sites, and within what appear to be defined “cemetery areas.”  The latter really intrigued me.  I looked at 27 primary sites from the region, and 16 of these contained cemetery areas consisting of multiple ossuaries; these ossuaries range in number from 2 to 13, and total more than 60.  In most cases, these multiple ossuaries are fairly tightly clustered, yet they never intrude into each other.  (Similarly, in village settings, ossuaries are not disturbed by other village features or structures.)  This makes me think that ossuaries—which were sometimes re-opened and re-used—were clearly marked and maintained on the landscape, probably often visited and esteemed by the local population.  It also makes me think that there are many ossuaries that have not yet been found.  Today, most ossuaries are found by accident, usually exposed during construction activities, and when I visit such finds, I often wonder how many more ossuaries are there, just beneath my feet.  Recently, I got a partial answer to that question.  A Maryland county was looking to develop one of its properties…a property on which several ossuaries had been found in the past.  Since I was convinced there was a “cemetery area” at this location, we recommended that the county undertake a non-destructive ground-penetrating radar survey of the area.  The results obtained by geophysical archeologist Dr. Tim Horsley were spectacular: clear indication of at least 8 more ossuaries on the property!  Yes, indeed, this was a “cemetery area.”

Results of a ground-penetrating radar survey at a site with 3 known ossuaries (blue), indicating the presence of at least 8 more probable ossuaries (red).

Results of a ground-penetrating radar survey at a site with 3 known ossuaries (blue), indicating the presence of at least 8 more probable ossuaries (red).

During the course of my study of Middle Atlantic ossuaries, many other patterns emerged.  Some of these include:

  • Ossuaries vary in size from just a few individuals to more than 600; the average is around 70 people.
  • The largest ossuaries tend to occur in the tidewater Potomac region of Maryland and Virginia, where a dozen ossuaries average nearly 250 people each.
  • The earliest ossuaries contain no associated artifacts.  Later, when artifacts do appear, they are usually non-utilitarian and decorative in nature.
  • The most common artifacts are beads (initially shell, then copper, then glass and/or a combination of types).  One Virginia ossuary contained 35,000 shell and glass beads, but that is unique.
  • Notably, artifacts are often associated with the remains of children.
  • Artifacts may also indicate the social status of individuals, such as a presumed “shaman’s kit” from a North Carolina ossuary, and a possible copper headdress from one in Maryland.
  • Specific treatment of remains (for example, extended articulated burials, or cremations) may also suggest social differentiation of individuals.  In fact, I have wondered if the death of these “special” people actually triggered the periodic Feast of the Dead.
  • In any event, ossuaries are not merely jumbles of bones.  Specific individuals (as bundles, articulated burials, or cremations) can be discerned, and it is clear that their identities were maintained by family members over the years-long burial process.  In this sense, they truly represent a community of the dead.

So it is that a simple catalog compilation developed into a 20-year immersion into the study of prehistoric ossuaries, first in Maryland, then further afield.  I hope my work allows modern Native Americans to better understand the ways of their ancestors, as well as allowing non-Native Americans to appreciate other cultures.  And some 20 or 50 years down the road, I hope this work will help guide future archeologists.

A post script:  When my article appeared in Archaeology of Eastern North America, I told my wife that it had been published.  She asked to see a copy, explaining “I don’t really understand what you do.”  (I know she started reading Feast of the Dead, but I’m fairly sure she never finished it.)  Anyway, that’s a pretty big shortcoming on my part, so I decided to write this blog from a more first-person perspective in order to provide an “inside look” at how one archeologist works. — DCC

Links for further reading:

Hurricane Preparedness for Maryland’s Historic Properties

by Imania Price, Intern, Office of Planning, Education and Outreach

Photograph by MEMA, Hurricane Isabel Flooding

Flooding from Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Photograph by MEMA.

Tropical storms are common events for the Chesapeake Bay region, especially during the Atlantic Hurricane Season which begins June 1st and ends November 30th.  September is typically Maryland’s most active month for tropical storms and unfortunately, the steady population growth and continuing development near the Bay’s shoreline has increased the risk of human injury and property loss during these forceful storms.

“We discovered the wind and waters so much increased with thunder, lightning , and rain that our mast and sail blew overboard, and such mighty wave over racked us…we were forced to inhabit these uninhabitable Isles which for the extreme of gust, thunder, rain, storms and ill weather, we called Limbo.”

Captain John Smith, The General Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles (1624)

Explorer Captain John Smith and his crew were among the first Europeans to experience a hurricane while sailing up the Chesapeake Bay. However, to encourage colonists to move to the New World, early traveler guides underrated these surprisingly fierce storms, which were far more intense than those experienced in England. Settlers, of course, were undeterred, and throughout the centuries, tropical storms have physically and economically changed the landscape and development of Maryland.  The Great Chesapeake Bay Hurricane of 1769, for example, was most likely responsible for demolishing the booming shipping channels of Maryland’s port town Charlestown and the subsequent rapid growth of Baltimore which emerged as the dominant port on the Chesapeake Bay.

Photograph by Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Hurricane Isabel’s impact on the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. Photograph by Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Over the past 20 years, Maryland has experienced severe storm events with increasing frequency, including four major disaster declarations during the 2011 and 2012 hurricane seasons.  Recent storms, Hurricane Irene, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, and Hurricane Sandy have all left irreparable damage to homes and businesses in the Maryland area.

To preserve Maryland’s heritage, it is essential for historic property owners and cultural resources stewards to document any damages to their property and protect their historic site from future hazard events. Many organizations and agencies have produced guidance on emergency preparedness, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation has compiled a list of flood preparation resources to help you protect your property before the storm and respond to damages after the storm. Links to the National Trust’s material and other useful information are provided below.

As the hurricane season continues, the Maryland Historical Trust will provide more hazard mitigation and disaster related information.  Visit the Cultural Resources Hazard Mitigation Planning Program for information on grants, trainings, and projects related to protecting Maryland’s historic places, archeological sites, and cultural landscapes from the effects of natural hazards, such as flooding, wind and coastal erosion.

Smith Island Looks to Its Future

By Jen Sparenberg, Hazard Mitigation Program Officer

Smith Island Historical Marker

Most Marylanders know Smith Island cake is Maryland’s official state dessert, but a few things about Smith Island folks likely don’t know are: it’s only accessible by water; it’s one of the oldest continually occupied colonial settlements; its isolation has preserved the culture and language patterns of its earliest colonists; the Island and surrounding bay marshes have been periodically inhabited since 10,800 BC, and that Smith Island is actually comprised of three different communities:  Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Continue reading