An eerie electronic whine carried over the fields around the Hamilton Willard Shafer Farm in Jefferson on Saturday afternoon as a man operating a metal detector swept over the rows of corn stalk stumps, looking for remnants of a battle that happened more than 150 years ago.
Standing nearby, Julie Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist and assistant division chief of the State Highway Administration’s Cultural Resources Section, described what the team hoped to learn about how the Battle of South Mountain — an important battle of the American Civil War in Maryland — played out in the 1860s by visiting the countryside site near Burkittsville.
“We’re looking at and studying the movement of troops across the landscape during the Battle of South Mountain, and to really understand where the men camped and marched and fought, we have to examine the landscape and the ground using archaeological methods,” Schablitsky said.
By using metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar to locate artifacts like the Minié ball bullets used by troops during the war, archaeologists hope to create a more comprehensive map of how each skirmish and battle played out. As a result of their findings, a historic military geographer working on the project will then be able to map out which roads and areas the troops traveled through still exist and document them more fully.
For example, archaeologists know that troops camped somewhere on the historic farm, but they were hoping to pinpoint exactly where. Overall, the team hopes to compare the information they gather with written narratives and accounts of the battles, which sometimes differ from what archaeological evidence uncovers.
“So, for a good example, right now at the Arnold Farm, which is a different site, we knew that somewhere in this field there was some sort of skirmish or fighting that took place between the Confederates and the Union, but we didn’t know exactly where and we also had a story about there being a barn that they kind of hid and fought behind,” Schablitsky said, explaining that everyone had always assumed that the barn referenced was a large barn that is still standing at the site.
“Well, in our work, what we’re finding is that, there’s all these nails and horseshoes [in a different place] and we think that that’s actually the evidence of there being other buildings that were standing during the Civil War,” she said. “So, what you’re seeing in the landscape today is not necessarily what was standing there over 150 years ago.”
Because of the way skirmishes were fought, and with guidance from historical records, archaeologists can sometimes determine exactly where each line was standing during a battle by looking at lines of dropped munitions and Minié balls. Similarly, the presence of uniform buttons, thimbles, buckles, metal insignia and other items — the team even uncovered part of a sheet music holder — indicate locations where the different sides set up camp.
To accomplish their goals, the SHA teamed up with the Burkittsville Preservation Association and Preservation Maryland to bring teams of professional archaeologists and historical science experts to both the Arnold Farm, which was examined last week, and the Hamilton Willard Shafer Farm.
The team was also learning more about and expanding on the histories of the individual properties, for example, a small excavation site set up behind the house structure that remains at the corner of Gapland and Catholic Church roads uncovered the remains of a plethora of different ceramics and more domestic items.
“And that makes sense, because this was the backyard, we know this was kitchen here, the exterior kitchen, and they didn’t really have trash cans back then,” said Kerry Gonzalez, a lab manager with Dovetail Cultural Research Group, one of several companies the SHA roped in to assist with the project. “So we’ve found a lot of domestic debris and also nails, which are great because [nails] are really diagnostic.”
By looking at the different types of nails that they find in the site, specialists hope to track the different stages of the house’s construction and upkeep, knowing how nails have changed over time, Gonzalez said.
As the owner of the nearby Arnold Farm in Middletown, former Burkittsville mayor and local business owner Paul Gilligan said he was personally excited to learn what secrets or details the examination of his property would bring to light. In particular, Gilligan said he would like to find some evidence of three graves of Arnold family members that were said to have been buried on the property. The record of the graves have sometimes even brought distant descendants to Gilligan’s doorstep.
“They go from politicians to doctors, lawyers, and they come to the house and they say, ‘Gee, I’d really like to find those graves,’ and I don’t have anything to show them,” Gilligan said, recounting one time when he was visited by an ex-governor of Maine who was descended from the family. “... That’s the type of thing I really would love to find out.”
For years, Gilligan, who is also a member of the Burkittsville Preservation Association, has also turned away private artifact-seekers who have approached to ask for permission to comb his property. Instead, Gilligan held out hope that a professional team like the SHA’s experts would properly examine the area and document it scientifically and historically.
“A bullet’s nothing more than a hunk of lead without a story, and when you take things out of the ground, the first thing you lose is the providence of what it is,” Gilligan said. “You can say, ‘Well, it’s a bullet,’ but where did it come from? If archaeologists and the state take it out of the ground, they map it, they report it and they preserve it, so, if a hundred years from now someone says, ‘Where did that come from?’ they can tell you on a map within inches of where it was found.”