Centuries collided at Webster Outlying Field as the thunder from helicopters flying overhead smothered the faint sounds of digging and scraping at the archaeological site below.
In October, as part of a cultural resources mapping project, archaeologists from Louis Berger Group, working in conjunction with representatives from the conservation division at NAS Patuxent River, conducted shovel test pits on the installation in an open grassy area known as Old Chapel Field.
“They went down about three feet, as far as they could dig by hand but they kept finding artifacts, so they opened a more formalized unit to see what else was under the ground,” said Mike Smolek, archaeologist and cultural resources manager at Pax River. “It is believed we may be in a cellar that has been filled in. Some preserved wood was found and other evidence suggests it may have had a wooden plank floor.”
Wine bottle glass, ceramic shards from storage jars and dishware, pipe bowls and stems, pieces of glazed brick, animal bones and large oyster shells were among the items painstakingly unearthed at the site, which is believed to date from the early to mid-1700s.
One artifact discovered was a well-preserved piece of pipe bowl clearly displaying the maker’s markthe initials WR.
“There has been a lot of research done on pipe makers,” Smolek said. “So if we can identify this particular maker’s mark, it will assist in dating the site.”
The Webster Field property, acquired by the Navy in 1942 from the Society of Jesus, was originally part of St. Inigoes Manor, a self-sufficient thriving acreage that included a manor house for priests, a servant’s plantation and tenant farms.
“This entire area once served as the headquarters for the Jesuit mission in English North America,” Smolek said.
Smolek went on to explain how an act passed in 1704 to prevent the growth of “Popery” and stamp down the spread of Catholicism, forced the closing of the large Jesuit “Brick Chapel” located in St. Mary’s City.
“In 1705, that chapel was dismantled and the bricks relocated down here to Old Chapel Field,” he said. “We don’t know for sure if they used them to build another chapel, or perhaps built a house with a smaller chapel attached, which would’ve allowed them to stay within the law by worshipping in private and not publicly.”
The Old Chapel Field site is being evaluated to see if it is eligible for inclusion on the National Historic Register. If it meets the specific criteriaif it is deemed likely to yield information important to American historythen the Navy will make a recommendation to the State Historic Preservation Office, which implements the federal program.
“The Navy has a strict and careful program for managing its cultural resources and it takes its stewardship very seriously,” Smolek said.
Artifacts removed from a site must be preserved, stored and maintained.
“You can’t throw artifacts away or give them away, so you must be careful about what to collect, Smolek said. “Once you change an artifact’s environment by digging it up, it’ll deteriorate quickly, so action must be taken.”
The Navy has a relationship with the State Museum of Archaeology Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, located in Calvert County, where thousands of artifacts are stored by a number of federal agencies.
If the site is deemed historically significant, the Navy must manage it going forward by either avoiding it, minimizing disturbance of it, or mitigating it.
“Contractors working on sites that uncover anything archaeologic must stop working and notify the authorities for evaluation,” said Kyle Rambo, Pax conservation director. “This is all dictated by federal law. It gets expensive to stop a dig. It’s better to find historical sites in advance rather than shutting down a project already under construction. If we know a site is there, we can mitigate it. For example, simply sliding a construction project over 40 feet might save months of delays and thousands of dollars.”
To date, more than 200 archaeological sites have been recorded on the properties of the NAS Patuxent River Complex.
“Pax is growing all the time,” Smolek said. “It’s important to understand what we have.”