Scientists, students, and volunteers unearth late 17th- and 18th-century objects behind Sellman House
by Sarah Hansen
Volunteers excavate a new pit at the “Shaw’s Folly” site behind Sellman House.
On a sunny June afternoon at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, students and volunteers are hard at work in a cornfield behind the Sellman House. Some shovel soil out of pits. Others screen it with giant sieves, looking for artifacts. Still others use trowels to smooth the bottom and sides of the pit, hoping to reveal differences in soil coloration and texture. This scene will repeat every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday from about 9a.m. to 4 p.m. until June 20. Guided by Laura Cripps, acting Chair of Social and Cultural Sciences at Howard Community College, and Jim Gibb, head of SERC’s Archaeology Lab,the group is excavating a site that contains objects and building materials that provide a window into 17th- and 18th-century life.
Veteran volunteer Alice Dollmeyer (left) teaches visitors about oysters at SERC’s annual Open House. (Smithsonian)
After 23 years volunteering outside, Alice Dollmeyer has seen some filthy things. The dirtiest thing she remembers handling at SERC is an oyster basket pulled up from the docks. When she first began, the oyster trays didn’t hang but sat on the bottom of the Rhode River, and would often come up covered in black mud.
Since then Dollmeyer has done just about every education job a SERC volunteer can do. She has lead canoe trips, helped children pick up crabs and run all five stations of the Estuary Chesapeake program for visiting schools. She’s also shown up for every docent workday, a day of housekeeping which, as education specialist Jane Holly describes it, “You get your arms as dirty as possible cleaning up everything to get ready for the field season.”
An open pit exposes a 3200-year-old shell midden. Native Americans used middens as trash piles for oyster shells, animal bones and pottery. (Torben Rick/Smithsonian)
More than 3,000 years ago, Native Americans dined on shellfish from the Chesapeake Bay, and the leftovers from those feasts are still benefiting modern-day forests.
Native Americans inhabited the Chesapeake Bay area more than 13,000 years before the first Europeans dropped anchor. During the Woodland period (3,200 to 400 years ago), they ate eastern oysters and threw the shells, along with animal bones, pottery and other shellfish remains, into trash piles called shell middens. Those piles enriched the soil with nutrients, promoting hot spots of native diversity along the Chesapeake shoreline.
Three nonnative flowers in Maryland. Left to right: Queen Anne’s Lace, Moth Mullein and Lesser Celandine. (Susan Cook-Patton)
“I just want to plant something that will grow in my yard. If a nonnative species grows better than a native, why shouldn’t I plant it?”
It’s a valid question, one that SERC postdoc Susan Cook-Patton remembers hearing from her father while still in high school. In the quest to preserve native plants, it’s become almost taboo to talk about the benefits of nonnatives. But not all nonnative plants are rampant invaders, and sometimes they could be good for gardens as a whole. Cook-Patton broke down the pros and cons of gardening with nonnative species at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s first evening lecture on April 15. Here are a few to consider when deciding what to put in your garden:
Jim Carlton tracked invasive species in the ocean for years when most scientists thought the sea was “invasion-proof.” (Anna Sawin)
There’s no official “father of marine invasions biology.” But if anyone could compete for the title, Jim Carlton, director of the Williams College – Mystic Seaport Program, would almost certainly top the list. More than 50 scientists from the U.S., Canada, Italy, Argentina and New Zealand voiced some version of that view, when they descended on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center for a three-day symposium in April informally dubbed “Jimfest.”
Like so much in science, his career began by sheer accident. In 1962, 14-year-old Carlton stepped on a strange worm while picnicking with his family in Lake Merritt, a small lagoon near San Francisco Bay. A few weeks later he discovered the same worm in an exhibit at a local nature center. The label identified it as a tubeworm from the South Seas. “This thing in my backyard as it were, not far from my house, in this estuarine lagoon, how could this thing be from the South Seas?” Carlton remembered thinking. “So I got fascinated by that concept.”
In deer-populated forests, tastier plants can avoid being eaten if they are surrounded by less appealing plants. But with deer gone, diverse plots become weaker and plants are better off sticking to their own kind.
A Chesapeake Bay NOAA mullet skiff. Note the motor near the bow. (SERC)
With its motor located near the bow (front) of the boat, the modern-day mullet skiff could have been a character in Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Similar to the unpunctual rabbit, vanishing cat and hookah smoking caterpillar, it seems illogical…or does it?
Commercial mullet fishing in 1955. (Monts de Oca, C. Morris courtesy of State Archives of Florida)
In the early 1900s, the mullet skiff was originally designed for use in the commercial mullet fishery of the south. Popular for its simple construction, flat-bottom dory style hull with vee entry, and rounded stern (back) design, the mullet skiff was ideal for operating in shallow waters while carrying heavy loads of fish. However, during Prohibition, entrepreneurs souped up their mullet skiffs with straight-8 engines (precursor V8s) to run rum from the Bahamas and Cuba to the states. Since then, many mullet skiffs have undergone less scandalous modifications and have evolved to have an outboard motor in a well near the bow.
Why place a motor here? For three important reasons: 1) It places the motor higher in the water for maneuvering in shallow water, 2) it leaves the stern (back) open to work a net, and 3) it eliminates the risk of net entanglement in the propeller. So, with “the wrong end in front,” the mullet skiff was the perfect choice for the near-shore predator study our field crew conducted this summer throughout the Chesapeake Bay.
Eleven-year-old Lucy Paskoff knows something about the hazards of filming wildlife. She and fellow home-school student McKenna Austin-Ward spent weeks documenting one of Chesapeake Bay’s most destructive pests: the mute swan.
From left: SERC home-school students Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez and Anne Marie Nolan at the student documentary film screening. (SERC)
It began with a video series called Ecosystems on the Edge. Home-school students ages 11 to 16 came to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center every two weeks, from September 2013 to January 2014, to create short science documentaries. Their abilities ranged from knowing how to shoot film to knowing how to turn on a computer, but full-scale video production was new to all of them. The Ecosystems series–short videos of SERC scientists working to save the coast–provided a springboard of ideas. The rest of the creative process was up to the students.
They broke into teams, ranging from one student to three. Instructor Karen McDonald walked them through the documentary-making process. Each team had to draft a proposal, draw a story board, create a shot list and script, interview SERC scientists on camera, film “B” roll (extra film) and find narrators, or read the narration themselves. Then came post-production, when the students spent weeks learning to use editing software.
By January, four teams overcame the environmental snags and technical difficulties and produced their own documentary shorts. From invasive earthworms to mute swans, here are their films:
Invisible Invasion: Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez, Anne Marie Nolan. Using ideas from the video Earthworm Invaders, this group focused on the silent and invisible invasion of earthworms in forests and the effects of invasive worms on forest ecosystems.
Beauty and Beast: McKenna-Austin Ward, Lucy Paskoff, Max Gwinn. This documentary was inspired by the video Alien Invader, which looked at invasive barnacles in the Chesapeake Bay. For their video the students chose the invasive mute swan, and compared people’s perception of the bird as beautiful to its beastly effect on the flora and fauna of the Bay.
Invertebrates as Bioindicators: Xanthia Strohl. Inspired by the video Stream Health, Xanthia explored the idea of using blue crabs and crayfish as indicators of water quality and health in the Bay, and suggested ideas for helping reduce runoff.
Blue Crabs-The Soul of the Chesapeake Bay: Abbie and Katie Cannon. This team of sisters was moved by the Blue Crabs: Top Predator in Peril film. Their documentary is based on the plight of the blue crab in the Bay, and factors affecting its population and success.
Image capture of the blue crab from Smithsonian X3D. (Credit: Smithsonian Institution)
Can’t get to water to fish up a blue crab? Want to teach about blue crabs and Smithsonian research but can’t make it to SERC or the Chesapeake Bay? Landlocked, but you want students to measure a crab’s carapace and learn about its life cycle? SERC has the answer: a virtual blue crab.
The blue crab is just part of the new Smithsonian X3D—a revolutionary way for visitors to interact with Smithsonian collections and research. In November 2013 the Smithsonian launched the Smithsonian X3D (beta) program, which allows visitors to flip, rotate and zoom in on digitized 3D images of objects from across the Institution. Right now they can explore more than 20 objects, including Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, the Wright brothers’ plane and a life mask of Lincoln.