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Learning from Howard County:

Archaeology in Howard County and Beyond. What I ’ve Learned in 40 Years About Its People and Sites.

by M. Lee Preston, Jr.


This review was prepared by Don Housley, President of the Mid-Potomac Chapter of ASM. An abridged version was published in the June, 2011, issue of ASM Ink.


Merryweather Post Pavilion. The L. L. Bean store in Columbia Mall. The Interstate 95 pathway (and sometimes obstacle depending on the traffic) from D.C. to Baltimore. The outstanding French bakery in Savage Mill.

As someone born and raised in neighboring Montgomery County, sadly these were the major Howard County sites I was familiar with until I read Lee Preston’s book. Thankfully, now I can add the Bassler Farmhouse on the grounds of Howard County Community College, the Wallace site at Triadelphia Reservoir, the First Presbyterian Church yard near Clarksville, Bushy Park and Longwood, Simpsonville mills, Patapsco Female Institute (PFI) overlooking Ellicott City and the Brown farmstead in Mt. Pleasant. For these are the sites that make up Preston’s 40-year journey into, as he titles Chapter 1, “Archaeology: The Method and the Madness.”

Because of Preston’s educational background and extensive archeological experiences—teaching in and writing curriculum for high schools and Howard Community College, president of the Upper Patuxtent Archeology Group (UPAG) and director of excavation at the PFI site—this book is a must read into how and why to engage the public in archeology. As a result of his valuable service, ASM recognized Preston with the William Mayre Award for “Outstanding Contributions to Maryland Archeology” and the “Teacher of the Year” Award.

Successful journeys usually start with a clearly stated mission. There is no mistaking Preston’s: “I felt strongly that the public should be made aware of our prehistoric and historic cultural resources, and of how archeology could help preserve and protect them.”

With professional guidance and instruction, Preston believes that people of all ages can be taught archeological methods and their purposes and in the end come to “respect the process and value” archeology. All this can be accomplished while getting volunteers “to work for nothing and to be excited about doing it.” ( Preston does add that serving Boarman’s chili on a site also helps.)

Preston presents an overview “Five Step” framework for instructing the public: where, how, recording, analysis and reconstruction. Not only is this valuable as a primer for new volunteers, but also for professionals to help guide them in their instruction of the public.

What struck me most about this book and made it enjoyable to read is how Preston personalizes archeology. While the purpose behind archeology is to find out as much as you can about a site and relay that information to the public, Preston does not let you forget that there are real people—with names—who are doing the research; setting out the grid; digging and sifting the dirt; collecting, identifying and cataloguing the artifacts; serving as docents, and making the displays.

As you page through the book, you will see scores of photographs of volunteers from elementary to college students, members of UPAG, and from the local communities. Besides photos, you will also read personal stories about volunteers such as Jaimie Wilder, who started as an 8-year-old camper learning the Five Steps and after several college summers working on sites in Europe now helps direct with a Howard County Community College professor the Bassler Farmhouse project.

Or about Mark Wallace, one of Preston’s high school students, who alerted him to a large area of exposed Native American artifacts at Tridelphia Reservoir.

Or the story of Danny Gear, one of Preston’s student aides, who was tasked every four months with monitoring an authorized dog burial on school grounds. He had to insert a hollow pipe into the site and sniff to test if the dog was completely decomposed so the class could excavate.

Nor does Preston forget to mention, by photographs and recollections, the many professionals and experts who gave of their valuable time. Preston’s advice about asking for expert help is to remember the old adage, ”You’ll never know what someone will say unless you ask.”

The remainder of the book gives detailed explanations and observations about specific Howard County projects and sites. Two chapters are devoted to prehistory (his first passion in archeology) and seven to historical sites. For each of the sites, Preston explains how the project started, what research and archeological techniques were used, ways in which the public was engaged, and how the results were interpreted.

When necessary, Preston also provides a wealth of background information to put the site into a larger historical context. Two examples, one prehistoric and the other historic, are provided.

In 1980, Mark Wallace noticed that the water level at Tridelphia Reservoir was receding, revealing a shoreline filled with prehistoric artifacts. A three- year repair project at Brighton Dam and low rainfall gave Preston, his students and UPAG members an opportunity to do a controlled surface collection resulting in 1,301 artifacts. For the volunteers, an introduction to flinknapping and lithic identification preceded each collection session.

These artifacts from the Wallace Site (19HO91), named after the student, were washed, catalogued and interpreted to represent a temporary lithic processing site spanning 10,000 years. With continual opportunities due to low water levels, three years turned into 15 with over 15,000 artifacts still awaiting analysis.

In calling the Patapsco Female Institute (PFI) “the best kept secret of Howard County,” Preston is probably revealing his favorite archeological site. After reading the two chapters on the Institute, the secret is out. One chapter is a classic case study in how to do historical archeology and the other tells the store of the PFI during its golden age from 1842-1856 under the direction of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps.

Built in 1837 on a hill overlooking Ellicott Mills, the school served to educate young women. Principal Phelps was noted for expanding the curriculum, including science, to enhance the women’s knowledge while still keeping within the 19th Century notion of a separate sphere of domesticity for women. The school never quite recover from the Civil War years and low enrollment led to its closing in 1891.

After decades of other uses and neglect, the Institute’s Greek Revival building was in ruins. Threatened by re-development and with the encouragement of concerned citizens, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks hired Preston to do archival research on the school’s history and its uses after it closed and to look for subsurface features.

Because the research revealed the significance of the school, the Howard County Council agreed to fund the stabilization of the deteriorating building, which in turn led to a full-blown archeology plan. The Institute reopened in 1995 as an historical park, archeology continues to this day. This chapter teaches a valuable lesson in that a project of this magnitude is the result of collaborative efforts among various groups—a friends group, the county government, UPAG, the school system and descendents of the school’s students.

The archeology on the site involved hundreds of volunteers as part of an extensive public outreach program working with a small group of professionals. One of these professionals, who had been one of Preston’s former college students best summarized the work: “At the PFI you had the chance to do good archeology just because it was the right thing to do.”
The outcome of this “good archeology” is, as Preston writes, “a meaningful place for the public to congregate, recreate, celebrate, and preserve history.”

Of equal importance and instructive are the other sites covered in the book.

The chapters on Bushy Park, Longwood and the Browns of Mt. Pleasant collectively show how the use of a variety of documents—land records, census material, wills, fire insurance records, diaries and letters—oral histories from interested descendents along with features and artifacts can work together to provide a complete picture of Howard County agriculture over time.

The two Simpsonville mill chapters explain the importance of saving mill ruin sites as a way of preserving the industrial history of the county. The chapter on the discovery of human bones in 1980 during an expansion of the First Presbyterian Church reads like a mystery story beginning with the call from the Howard County Police Department to the analysis by Dr. Lawrence Angel from the National Museum of Natural History then to the final disposition of the human remains.

A 40-year journey in archeology has rough spots along the way. Preston chronicles them also: budget woes, so many artifacts that still need to be identified and interpreted, a prehistory display that gets shunted to the basement, a valuable dirt pile from a basement section of the Patapsco Female Institute that gets hauled off to the county dump before being screened and projects anticipated to take a few years taking decades.

But from reading the book, the rewards clearly outnumber the setbacks. The opening in 1995 of the Patapsco Institute to the public and having a dozen or so students go on to become professional archeologists, to name just two, seem worth the trouble.
“Archeology in Howard County and Beyond” is both comforting and challenging. Comforting in the sense that someone felt inspired enough to share his and his journey-mates’ personal experiences in doing archeology that helped advance the history of Howard County. Challenging in that Preston has, intentionally or otherwise, thrown down the challenge to others with similar experiences—and you know who you are—to tell about your private archeological journeys and thus provide a fuller history of Maryland.

Always the teacher, Preston does not miss an opportunity to remind the reader of his key idea. Out of respect, the last sentence of this review is the last sentence from his book: “The more the public becomes involved in this process [of archeology] the better the chances of preserving our rich cultural heritage.”