by Kristen Minogue
Homestead House, called Woodlawn by its first residents in the early 1700s. (SERC)
On the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, less than a mile from the Rhode River, there is an old red house on an abandoned farm. Once, in the 18th century, it belonged to a thriving plantation. The hilled rows of tobacco have vanished, along with the field hands, tenant farmers and generations of enslaved Africans and African Americans who planted them. But the scars on the landscape remain. The surrounding earth carries traces of how each of its inhabitants have used it, or abused it.
The house’s first inhabitants in the early 1700s called it Woodlawn. Today it is known simply as the Homestead House. The building and its surrounding farmland now sit within the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Instead of enslaved laborers and field hands, teams of volunteers are overturning the soil in search of clues about its past.
Archaeologist Jim Gibb began the excavation at SERC earlier in August. His volunteers come for a single afternoon, or several weeks. He isn’t terribly picky about long-term commitments. Gibb welcomes anyone who can handle a shovel and is at least ten years old (and even that rule is flexible). Under his guidance, they are piecing together the story of one household’s legacy on the land.
The team made one of their biggest discoveries just a few weeks into the project, when they uncovered a brick foundation sprinkled with household artifacts. One possibility is that it was a storage shed. Another, that it was someone’s home.
“If someone was living in that in the early 19th century, and we know where the owners were living, then we do the math,” Gibb said. “They have to be labor. And at that point, probably slave labor.”
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