Opinion: Archaeologists stand against digging that exploits, destroys Maryland sites

Excavations must apply archaeological, scientific considerations, council president says

Published on: November 15, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 15, 2022 7:23 AM EST

Photo collage of person digging, with photo of archaeological dig in background, and archaeological site record with list of site locations, including “privy.”

The desire to collect historical objects is as old as humanity itself, and this appetite for antiquity can be seen throughout Maryland. As professional archaeologists, my colleagues and I have recovered ancient Indigenous stone tools in a 19th century farmhouse basement and found 7,000-year-old artifacts on a 700-year-old Native American site.

In both cases, people probably stumbled across these objects on the ground and marveled at the link to the past. It is important to realize, however, that archaeology is a profession that requires training and care. It is not so much what you find, but the meaning and context behind those discoveries, that is most valuable.

In order to make sense of the objects found on a site, archaeologists deliberately choose where, why and how to excavate, dig carefully, and keep detailed records of their work. We do this because archaeological sites are nonrenewable sources of information, and when sites are mined for relics or artifacts, they are simply destroyed.

In 2021, the Council for Maryland Archeology (CfMA) and Preservation Maryland co-organized a webinar, “Finding Common Ground: Can Archaeologists and Relic Hunters Work Together?” During that conversation, we discovered a shared appreciation of the stories that can be told through historic objects and a strong desire to involve the community in the process.

Yet archaeologists must speak out when we see the destruction of sites and the sale of material remains, as is increasingly happening across Maryland. It is a common misconception that a historic resource must be ancient or large, or the home of a famous person, to deserve protection. This is blatantly false. The archaeological record of every person throughout time matters, no matter their race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

Most people are missing from written records, and the material they left behind — often in their outhouses, also known as privies — is the sole record that we can use to understand their lives. Historic privies provide a key source of information about the past, especially of those whose stories have been underrepresented.

Many of these sites in Baltimore are now being destroyed by relic hunters and other privy diggers. While we share the passion and interests of these collectors and are grateful when they bring new attention to the untold histories of those who have been marginalized, numerous resources are being destroyed by a complete lack of scientific excavation.

We are also troubled by the increasingly common narrative in the media that there is nothing wrong with digging historic sites in search of a few beautiful or interesting objects. True reading of the archaeological record requires precision, care, and years of training, with proper methods to thoroughly recover the extensive information that these resources hold. This includes small and seemingly insignificant items such as plant seeds, animal bones, broken bits of wood or leather, and so much more.

The process of safely and carefully extracting information from a privy pit takes several days to weeks. Detailed analysis and curation of the material takes months. Without these data and methods, we lose a window into the past and an opportunity to better understand the lives of Baltimore’s marginalized populations, particularly immigrants, Black people, and impoverished groups.

In addition, safety and legality are serious issues when excavating privies. The excavation of deep shafts without shoring or protective equipment places the diggers in physical danger. Many privies have air pockets that open to create voids that an excavator could easily fall into. Toxic fumes in such confined spaces can kill.

Further, landowners who allow excavation on their property can be legally responsible if a crew member is gravely injured. During the 1980s and 1990s, Baltimore had a robust archaeology program with a City Museum and a city archaeologist. Both disappeared, and local support and more legal protections are needed to spur a robust citizen scientist archaeology program that collaborates with the people of Baltimore.

Organizations such as Baltimore Archaeology Forum, the Baltimore Community Archaeology Lab, and the Herring Run Archaeology Project should be commended for leading this charge. The past belongs to everyone, and we all share the responsibility of protecting and preserving our archaeological heritage.

CfMA will continue to encourage collaboration and dialogue about how people can safely explore and experience the rich heritage of Baltimore. This will require archaeological programs that serve the public and tap into the public enthusiasm without compromising the scientific and systematic study of the lives of historic Baltimoreans. We encourage everyone interested in our shared heritage to work with us to save our history, not to mine it for profit.

Stephanie T. Sperling is president of the Council for Maryland Archeology