People working | Visit Dorchester
People Digging | Visit Dorchester

Dr. Julie Schablitsky talks with crew members from the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, explaining the archaeology at the site and showing them some of the artifacts before they began their work to fill in the pits and restore the yard where the dig took place.

Archaeologists conclude two-week dig in Cambridge

A team of archaeologists has unearthed conclusive evidence that the cabin behind the historic Bayly house was used as a home in the 19th Century. The next step will be to determine how far back it was occupied and by whom.

The archaeologists, from the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (SHA), spent two weeks in September at the site along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, working in collaboration with the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area (HCCHA) and the homeowner, Catherine Morrison.

Digging beneath the cabin floorboards, which had been removed for the excavation, the archaeologists discovered a nicely preserved, stratified site with numerous artifacts, said Dr. Julie Schablitsky, SHA’s chief archaeologist.

“Much like a Smith Island cake, you are seeing layers of deposits,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “We ended up finding items that reflect someone’s home – things you would find in a kitchen, things you would find in a living room, things you would find on your dining room table. The items that we found were evidence of domestic life in the cabin.”

Dr. Julie Schablitsky (fifth from left) and her team of archaeologists, along with Historian Herschel Johnson (far left) and Homeowner Catherine Morrison (third from right). The archaeologists plan to return in May to continue the excavation.

Hundreds of artifacts, dating to 1700s

They have collected hundreds of artifacts dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, including pieces of plates, wine bottles, glassware, pitchers, buttons, medicine bottles, clay tobacco pipe stems, charcoal and ash, animal and fish bones, and crab shells.

“With as robust of a collection that we have, we are confident that there is enough in the cabin to tell us about how people lived, and that is worth coming back for,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “We literally have piles of plates and glassware, artifacts that are large sized.

“As we excavated down, we were finding animal bones that will help us reconstruct the diet of the people who lived there. One of the most important parts of the puzzle will be how they fed themselves. A diet that shows that the people were living in poverty would indicate that the people were enslaved.”

Research, documentation continues in lab

The archaeologists will spend the next few months working in their lab in Baltimore, where they will be washing, analyzing, dating and cataloguing the artifacts from the Bayly site. The data will help tighten the dates that mark the beginning and end of the cabin’s occupation. From what they have found thus far, they know that the cabin was occupied pre-emancipation, but they do not know how far back that occupation goes.

That the structure even exists today is remarkable, Dr. Schablitsky said. Over the years, homeowners would remove cabins like the one behind the Bayly house for many reasons. Often it was because of the stigma of what they represented. Or the buildings might be used as sheds until they became so dilapidated that the owners simply tore them down.

Returning to explore more, give public presentation

The archaeologists have excavated just 25 percent of the cabin, and they plan to continue their work in May, Dr. Schablitsky said. They also are planning to return before then to give a public presentation in Cambridge to share their findings and display the artifacts that they have found thus far.

“This is how they wrote their stories,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “They left them in in the broken things they left behind. What we are trying to do is interpret them.”

For more information, visit the Bayly web page.

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