Maryland Hosts 48th Annual Archeology Field Session

Planning Assistance in Action

Drone image of the 2019 Archeological Field Session Site (Photo Credit: Ryan Craun of M-NCPPC)

Have you ever dreamed what it might be like to join in on an archeological dig? The idea evokes images of Indiana Jones, Egyptian treasure, large rolling boulders and…snakes, right? But one doesn’t have to travel very far to have an authentic brush (pun intended) with an active dig and the chance to help unearth some astonishing artifacts. Hopefully, sans snakes.

Held in late May to early June, the Annual Tyler Bastian Field Session is a cooperative venture between Planning’s Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and the Archeological Society of Maryland (ASM). ASM describes that the purpose of the event is “to introduce lay persons to archeological methods and to teach Maryland’s past through hands-on involvement, while making meaningful contributions to the study of Maryland archeology. Sites are selected for their research potential, endangerment (e.g., from erosion, development, etc.), and for their suitability as a training site. [1]”

Named for Maryland’s first state archeologist, this citizen science project is open to the public and boasts lecture series, workshops, and provides facilities for camping. It has grown considerably in nearly five decades since Bastian started the program in 1971 as a weekend field-testing project, to an event which this year had an average of 25 participants each day, spanning 11 days in the field.

This year’s event involved excavations at a site known as the Billingsley House near Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County (see images below). The Billingsley House site is owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and is operated as a historic house and museum by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), who acted as host to this year’s event. (For more on the history of the site visit MHT’s 2019 Field Session webpage.)

Archeological features during excavation. (Photo credit: Ryan Craun of M-NCPPC).

The house itself was not the object of the dig, rather it was other parts of the tract which were documented historically to be inhabited by the “Mattapany and Patuxon Indians” during the 17th century. A remote sensing survey by MHT Office of Archeology staff last fall utilized magnetic susceptibility technology to identify a roughly 1.3-acre anomaly of culturally modified soils at the site, which became the focus of this year’s field session. Additional work early this spring with another remote sensing technology called a fluxgate gradiometer allowed the archeologists to literally “see beneath the soil” to identify areas for intensive study.

Photo of a roughly 4,000-year-old spearhead found at the Billingsley House site just prior to the start of the 2019 Tyler Bastian Archeological Field Session.

2019 Field Session participants took part in a variety of trainings and workshops including a talk by Rico Newman, a prominent member of the Chopitco Band of the Piscataway peoples. The title of his talk was “Artifacts are Not Wild Onions” – his purpose was humanizing the artifacts by providing a Native American perspective on those artifacts already found, and likely to be found during the excavation. He described how artifacts are often interpreted very differently by American/European historians and archeologists than they are by indigenous people.

A hands-on workshop taught participants how to use remote sensing equipment and conduct a magnetic susceptibility survey. The workshop was conducted by MHT staff for participants in ASM’s Certified Archeological Technician (CAT) program, a program that provides additional training for avocational archeologists. As part of this experience, the participants were tasked with surveying a small parcel (approximately a 20 x 20 m. area in one-meter increments) to the west of the current excavation site, and they were very successful in collecting new data for MHT staff. 

Remote sensing workshop. Rico Newman operating magnetic susceptibility reader.

In another CAT workshop, participants learned how to perform a shovel test pit survey; another technique for trying to figure out how far a site extends by digging small test pits at regular intervals. In this case the pits were 30 cm across and extended down through cultural deposits to the subsoil, then an additional 10 cm down into the culturally-sterile subsoil, spaced at 10-meter intervals.

Over the past 48 years of the program, about 30 different sites in 13 of Maryland’s 24 counties, ranging from prehistoric camps and villages to historic mills and plantations, have been explored. The MHT website describes the program as fostering “a tradition of cooperation and camaraderie between amateur and professional archeologists, putting Maryland at the forefront of nationwide efforts to involve present generations in our shared archeological past. The program has worked well in that it provides a structured, professionally-directed excavation project for students and lay-people and provides the Office of Archeology’s professional staff with an eager, well-trained cadre of volunteer assistants.” [ibid]

Shovel Test Pit Excavation

Chief Archeologist at MHT, Dr. Matthew McKnight, began his involvement with the Archeology Field Sessions, somewhat sporadically from 2007 to 2012, but has been involved regularly since 2013. This year marked his first year as a Principal Investigator (P.I.) working alongside his Co-P.I., Stephanie Sperling of M-NCPPC.

(Clockwise from top left) Excavations underway; Volunteer finds a projectile point; Screening soil for artifacts; Artifacts from just one level of a single test unit.

When asked what was unique about this year’s session, Dr. McKnight said, “I think we went into this session with a maximum amount of information about the site, primarily because of the remote sensing capabilities that MHT can now conduct in-house. This meant we were able to concentrate our work in the areas where the remote sensing told us we would find features such as refuse pits and hearths or where the soil has otherwise been disturbed and altered by human activity. This meant we could almost ‘surgically’ excavate, getting the most out of the limited amount of time we have in the field.”

MHT is in the process of developing a video of the 2019 session, which is expected to be made available later this summer. Check back here to find the link and watch the video. Currently, you can view photo galleries of previous field sessions, from 2002-2018, on ASM’s web page. For more information about the Field Session, Dr. McKnight may be reached by telephone at (410)697-9572 or by email at

To participate next year, watch for announcements on MHT’s web page beginning in April 2020 or sign up here to receive notification by email.  There is no pre-requisite training…come as you are, no khakis, fedora, or bullwhip required!

[1] 2019 Annual Archeology Field Session

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