April 2017 Archeology Month
At the Water's Edge: Our Past on the Brink
Water is inexorable. It sculpts the Earth. Taking away here, adding there. Soil. Stone. It doesn't matter; in the end all material bends to its will. When combined with an energizing force such as gravity, tide, or wind, water's effects on the Earth are intensified. Maryland's coastal plain, composed of unconsolidated sediments, is especially susceptible to the power of water. Real estate has vanished before landowners' eyes. Whole islands – perhaps as many as 400 in the Chesapeake Bay – have disappeared since Captain John Smith's 1608 voyages of discovery. In recent years the rampage of water has accelerated. Whether as a result of more frequent and more intense storms, with their accompanying tidal surges and enhanced wave energy, or through coastal subsidence and sea level rise, loss of shoreline is taking an ever greater toll on Maryland's coastal landscape.
Water is also a human attractant. People are drawn to it, and have been for as long as people have been people. Water is a necessity of life, both for us and for the food that sustains us. The shore has always been prime real estate.
When accelerating shoreline loss is coupled with the gravitational effects of water on human settlement throughout time, the inevitable result is tremendous destruction of archeological sites. Archeologists are familiar with this type of loss. Early Holocene Paleoindian sites likely line the banks of the ancestral Susquehanna River beneath the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, while innumerable shell middens are visible along its eroding shorelines. The spotlight of superstorm Sandy (2012), following on the heels of more locally impacting hurricane Isabel (2003) and tropical storm Lee (2011), has illuminated a inescapable truth: Maryland's archeological heritage is under full-on assault.
What can be done about it? A number of Maryland archeologists are hard at work researching this question. They are studying the mechanisms of shoreline loss, predicting the spatial distribution and extent of its future effects on archeological sites, and designing and testing strategies to mitigate them.
For More Information
Posters and other printed materials are available on request; to request copies, or for more information, contact Dr. Charlie Hall, State Terrestrial Archeologist, at 410-697-9552.