The U.S. Navy occupies land that contains some of the most important archaeological sites in Maryland’s history – including, among others, sites discovered at NAS Patuxent River and Webster Outlying Field.

“Waterfront property has always been desirable to humans as habitation sites because of access to food, drinking water, transportation and so on,” explained Sara Rivers Cofield, archaeologist and curator of federal collections at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Laboratory, located at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, the State Museum of Archaeology. “The Navy tends to have bases on the water and most of those lands have been occupied by people for thousands of years.”

The National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 require the identification and evaluation of historic archaeological sites on federal property, and stipulate that any artifacts recovered remain the property of the U.S. government and must be properly curated.

The Navy takes that stewardship very seriously. To date, more than 200 archaeological sites have been recorded on properties within the Pax River Complex, which encompasses 19 properties in five Maryland counties and covers approximately 15,000 acres, with thousands more acres of Navy-controlled water ranges. The diverse cultural resources on those properties include prehistoric archaeological sites, 17th and 18th century colonial sites, shipwrecks, aircraft wrecks and other underwater sites.

Excavations of those archaeological sites are often prompted by proposed construction or repair projects that will disturb the soil, and any artifacts collected during excavations are sent to the MAC Lab to ensure they are properly maintained.

Interestingly, there are no underwater finds from the Navy in the MAC Lab collection, as underwater artifacts tend to have a different jurisdiction.

“The state owns Maryland’s waterways, but when artifacts and sites discovered are Navy property – such as naval shipwrecks and downed naval aircraft – they fall under the control of the Naval History and Heritage Command, which has its own storage facilities,” Rivers Cofield said.

Inhabitants throughout the ages

Based on diagnostic projectile points recovered during surveys, some sites aboard Pax River properties date back 10,000 years.

“The oldest site that has had in-depth excavations is a tool-making and hunting camp at NAS Pax River that dates back to the late Middle Archaic and early Late Archaic period, about 7,000 to 4,500 years ago,” Rivers Cofield said. “It was excavated to recover data before a helipad site was constructed [in conjunction with the Presidential Helicopter Replacement Program.]”

On prehistoric sites, the most common artifacts found are debitage – lithic flakes and shatter from the manufacture of stone tools.

“It is more unusual to find the finished tools,” Rivers Cofield noted. “From the helipad site, we have about 1500 pieces of debitage but only 34 lithic tools.”

Various colonial sites have also been identified, such as the Mattapany-Sewall plantation at NAS Pax River, once the home of Charles Calvert, Third Lord Baltimore and Lord proprietor of the Maryland Colony; and the circa-1637 plantation founded by the Jesuits, who arrived in Maryland with the first English colonists, on land now occupied by Webster Field.

“Mattapany-Sewall at Pax and Old Chapel Field at Webster are perhaps the most significant to the history of Maryland’s early English settlement,” Rivers Cofield added.

One of the most unusual artifacts recovered at NAS Pax River was the clay figurine of a king from what is known as the Charles’ Gift site, identified when proposed changes to the air station’s Officers Club prompted an archaeological survey.

“On historic sites, brick, oyster shell, ceramic shards, nails, bottle and window glass, and tobacco pipes are common,” Rivers Cofield said. “Probably the most unusual find from Webster Field was a cilice [a spiked, metal garter or belt-like device used in some religious traditions to induce discomfort or pain as a sign of repentance and atonement.]”

One of the best known and well-studied sites aboard NAS Pax River is Susquehanna, a former plantation owned by various members of the Carroll family since 1767. In the 1840s, ownership was assumed by Henry J. Carroll, a planter who possessed as many as 65 slaves but fell upon financial difficulty when a failed business venture was followed by the Civil War and the emancipation of the enslaved individuals who had represented a large portion of his estate’s value.

Excavations at Susquehanna in the 1980s revealed the presence of a 30 by 35-foot house believed to have been built by Carroll in the 1840s. Old maps from the time showed a number of small buildings east of the house near the Harper’s Creek shoreline, speculated to have been occupied by Carroll’s slaves.

In 2015, further excavations were conducted at the site of those outbuildings and archaeologists found the remains of a collapsed chimney and a portion of a cabin’s brick foundation. Artifacts specifically associated with African Americans were also unearthed, such as a white gizzard stone, believed to have held spiritual/mystical significance, and a particularly interesting fragment of a small bottle with the words “Hoyt’s Nickel Cologne” in raised letters. The cologne was supposedly used for luck in love and gambling, and was very popular in the late 1800s in African American communities.

Artifact management and preservation

When artifacts come in to the MAC Lab – which comprises curation, conservation and research departments – a baseline inventory is taken to ensure all items within a collection arrived.

“We also do a conservation assessment to see if any of the artifacts are badly deteriorating,” Rivers Cofield said, “and if they are, we report that deterioration to the Navy – the owner agency – and recommend conservation treatment.”

The new collections are then added to databases to keep track of what’s there, boxes are labeled, and records that come in with the collection are organized – a routine that Rivers Cofield calls “the basic museum accessioning process.”

Although the MAC Lab works with other federal agencies including the Army, NASA, GSA, Coast Guard, and USDA, among others, the Navy is by far the laboratory’s largest federal client.

“We curate 623 boxes of artifacts for the Navy and 40 linear feet of records that document the excavations those artifacts come from,” Rivers Cofield said. “Using an estimate of 1,000 artifacts per box, that’s a total of 623,000 artifacts being stored for the Navy; with 270,000 coming from NAS Pax River and 137,000 from Webster Field.”

Rivers Cofield noted that in the U.S., most people believe it’s a good idea to preserve historic sites but aren’t necessarily willing to give up their rights to do whatever they want with their own personal property.

“Private developers that don’t trigger some kind of law can legally destroy important archaeological sites without any study at all, and that’s why it’s important to make sure federal agencies are conscientious about their stewardship responsibilities,” she said. “With laws in place to preserve sites on federal properties, it’s a way to preserve at least a portion of the nation’s history without infringing upon the property rights of individuals.”

Far reach of historic artifacts

The importance and versatility of artifacts unearthed on Pax River properties is far-reaching. The collections are constantly accessed for research, public outreach, exhibition and education.

“We currently have 39 loans for exhibit, 13 for research and seven for education – whole boxes of collections away at a university or other institution for study, or used at events, or with school kids,” Rivers Cofield noted. “For example, right now, processed soil samples from Old Chapel Field [at Webster] are at UNC Chapel Hill for paleobotanical analysis.”

And while outside researchers who visit the MAC Lab are usually archaeological scholars, some study other topics, such as climate change that might be reflected in changes in oyster shells over the millennia.

“We’ve never done a complete count, but a lot of scholarly articles, popular articles, dissertations and books have featured collections from the MAC Lab,” Rivers Cofield said. “And those of us who work here often take collections to lectures, events and other outreach. I recently gave a talk to the Bead Society of Greater Washington and took beads from our collections, including 17th century beads found [at Pax River and Webster Field.]”

MAC Lab staffers have also done their best over the years to add research tools, site summaries and public outreach content online so that people from around the world can access the information remotely.

“One of our web resources, ‘Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland’ had about 500,000 hits last year alone,” Rivers Cofield said. “It is, by far, our most popular and is used by researchers worldwide and cited in a lot of archaeological reports.”

How to view artifacts

While the MAC Lab is not a museum, free tours of its facilities are available at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Thursday and at 1 p.m. on the first Friday of each month; and access is offered by appointment to anyone interested in the collection.

“That includes scholarly researchers and the general public; for example, people who find their genealogy connects to one of our collections, or people who find an artifact and want to know more about it,” Rivers Cofield said. “We just ask that they contact us ahead of time to schedule access visits so we can talk about their interests and have time to pull the collections.”

Even without an onsite visit, those interested can delve into the lab, its collections and the history behind them by visiting and clicking on the MAC Lab tab. Of particular interest might be the Curator’s Choice Archives link with photos and explanations of specific artifacts, or “Archaeological Collections in Maryland” at which has finding aids, images and scanned records for 30 of the lab’s most important collections.

Some local Navy collections, discovered at the Posey site at Indian Head, Old Chapel Field at Webster and Mattapany at NAS Pax River, are also featured on the Colonial Encounters website at

The one thing Rivers Cofield wants to clarify about the MAC Lab is that they do not study dinosaurs and other fossils.

“That’s paleontology,” she stated. “Archaeologists study human cultures, so when people bring us fossils, we typically direct them to the Calvert Marine Museum.

The MAC Lab, which is part of the Maryland Historical Trust, has housed the Navy’s collections since its opening in 1998, though the Navy has had a relationship with MHT since the 1980s. While the rule is to only accept Maryland collections, because of their close relationship, the lab will also take the Navy’s D.C. collections.

“Sometimes people ask me if it’s a shame that so many important historic sites are on military bases that the general public can’t visit for security reasons, and my answer is ‘no’,” Rivers Cofield said. “I’m glad those sites are protected. And thanks to the MAC Lab’s partnership with the Navy, the artifacts that tell the story of those sites are accessible without security clearance.”