City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Dec 6, 2010 5:45 PM
Banneker homestead is object of long search
August 22, 1996
by Pamela Cressey
A fascinating archaeological project has been going on in Maryland since 1983. Its task has been great, but it is definitely the sort of challenge that archaeologists relish. The Maryland Historical Trust has been studying 72 acres with the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks in order to locate and interpret a small tobacco farming family’s log house. The work provides the central focus of a new historical park commemorating Benjamin Banneker, perhaps one of the most well known and respected African Americans of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The archaeologists, directed by Robert Hurry, had the proverbial "needle in the haystack" goal: find the Banneker log house dating as early as 1731 on 72 acres.
Oh yes, there are a few handicaps in this historical adventure. First, there are no visual clues above ground to help, because the house burned down the day Banneker was buried in 1806. Then of course, you have to use shovels and trowels. No backhoes allowed! One last thing-you won’t necessarily know the site when you first dig there. You will have to map your findings (artifacts and chemical soil data) over the 72 acres and look for anomalies. Where do the highest 18-19th century artifact quantities converge with organic soils?
A second step in the search requires more systematic excavation in that location.
Fortunately, Hurry and the trust were undaunted by the handicaps. In fact, this archaeological study is perhaps a classic opportunity to conduct historical archaeology. Account books were left by Banneker and the Ellicott family, who operated the mill and store one mile away. Additionally, there are eyewitness accounts of the home and Silvio Bedini’s engrossing biography of this self-made man. So, there is much to which the archaeological findings can be related and compared.
The archaeological study provided the chance to know more about this man’s personal lifestyle and changing lifestyles of tobacco farmers in an 18th century frontier over the 75 years that the Bannekers owned the land.
The first task in the study was a survey using a strategy referred to as shovel testing. In 1985, Hurry and his crew excavated with shovels 393 1-foot diameter test pits using a 20-foot interval pattern. In some areas, they also excavated test pits in 10-foot intervals, resulting in 170 additional tests. Computer generated maps provided the spatial overview of artifact distributions and soil types. Fortunately, the survey team also found evidence of two cellars which had been filled. Was one of these cellars the remains of Benjamin Banneker’s home?
Next week we will look at the results of the cellar excavations. Right now I have to conduct a more systematic search for my watch, perhaps I should excavate my basement.