Dig to determine provenance of cabin behind oldest house in Cambridge
A team of archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (SHA) will be digging for evidence for two weeks in September to help determine whether a 19th-century cabin behind a house in Cambridge could have been used as housing for enslaved African-Americans in the 1800s.
The site, which is located on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, is significant for several reasons. The privately-owned Bayly House on High Street, believed to be built in the 1740s and then moved to Cambridge in the 1750s or 1760s, is probably the oldest dwelling in Cambridge. The structure behind the house, which is thought to date from the mid-1800s, has long been referred to a former slave cabin. However, no conclusive evidence currently exists to document the building’s original purpose.
The SHA archaeological team is working with the homeowner, Catherine Morrison, and the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area to document the structure’s purpose and verify whether it was once used as slave quarters. Because SHA archaeologists specialize in African American archaeology and because it is along the Byway, it is a perfect partnership for them, said Dr. Julie Schablitsky, SHA’s chief archaeologist.
“Very little archaeology has taken place on the Eastern Shore, and this is an opportunity to highlight a history of well-known Cambridge families, as well as unsung heroes who fought their way to freedom,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “If the cabin is a quarter, it will give the archaeologists a rare chance to dig directly around and under such a building.”
Geophysical survey pinpoints locations for excavation
Their work began in August with a geophysical survey using ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint locations for excavation. The team will be digging on the property on weekdays from Sept. 10-21. During that time, they also will have a dendrochronologist take samples from beams inside the house and the cabin to examine the tree rings. The dendrochronology will help determine the age of the structures, as well as where they were built based on the wood’s source.
“It will be very difficult to unequivocally state if this is a slave quarter,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “At the best, we will be able to show it was a domestic home that was lived in by people prior to emancipation. We will look for the survival of pits and buried artifacts directly associated with the building.”
The archaeologists hope to find faunal remains that reflect a diet of people who were impoverished. Animals that were old when butchered and cuts of meat that were from the limbs and heads of animals would have been fed to enslaved workers. Because the rations were seldom enough, they would supplement their diet with raccoon, rabbits, opossum, crabs, fish and turtles – anything that could be gathered or easily snared.
Preserving, stabilizing structure after excavation
Morrison has advocated for this research and for ways to preserve the cabin since she learned of its significance after purchasing the property 3 1/2 years ago. She believes that she has an obligation to preserve the cabin and share the history of the property and those who have owned it over the past three centuries.
The Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area has received two grants – from Preservation Maryland and from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Bartus Trew Providence Preservation Fund – to stabilize and preserve the structure. That work will begin after the archaeological excavation is completed.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Morrison said. “When I bought the house, I thought all the houses up and down High Street had cabins behind them. I didn’t realize that it was not a common thing. This should be highlighted and preserved. Sometimes you just find yourself in a place and time when something needs to be done.”
Sharing the findings
Because the property is located on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, it is expected the findings from this excavation can be incorporated into signage and interpretive materials associated with the byway.
Because the cabin is on private property, the site is not open to the public during the excavation. However, interpretive panels will be installed along the sidewalk to provide an overview of the work taking place. In addition, the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area will be providing regular updates on a website page designed to the Bayly House and on Dorchester County social media.
Colin Bean, archaeologist, (pictured above) and Maeve Herrick, geophysical specialist, with New South Associates in Greensboro, NC, examined the Bayly property in August, using a magnetic gradiometer (magnetometer) and ground-penetrating radar. The instruments will help identify and pinpoint subsurface features, such as structures, pits, foundations; ferrous metals; materials heated beyond their Curie point (including kilns, bricks, burned buildings); and other buried features. The data from their surveys will be used to map potential buried archaeological resources and help guide the SHA archaeologists when they conduct their excavations. More photos of their survey work are in the gallery below.
For more information about the archaeological and historical research underway at the Bayly property, contact:
Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area