History of the Project
In 2002, colleagues from a number of institutions in Maryland and Virginia began collaborating on an
earlier project and website, "A Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture"
(www.chesapeakearchaeology.org). This project
explored intra-regional variability in the material
conditions of culture contact, plantation development, slavery, and consumer behavior.
One of the findings from that project was just how different the Chesapeake's river drainages were in
terms of social life as reflected in the region's archaeological record. This effort called into
question efforts to lump the Maryland and Virginia Tidewater into a single cultural region.
That realization led to a focus on the Potomac River valley, one of the important river valleys in
the nation's history. It was clear that archaeologists, who have been busy excavating sites in
the Potomac valley since the 1930s, had amassed a large database about life in this area between 1500
and 1720 AD (the project's chronological boundaries) but that little synthetic or comparative work
had been attempted.
In 2012, colleagues from several institutions, led St. Mary's College of Maryland, received generous
funding support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to undertake one of the first efforts
to assemble and synthesize archaeological evidence from archaeological sites in the Potomac valley. Project
members examined existing collections in the custody of the George Washington Foundation, Historic
St. Mary's City, the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, the Maryland Historical
Trust, the National Park Service's George Washington Birthplace National Monument, the National
Park Service's Museum Resources Center National Capital Region, the University of Michigan, and
the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
For the next three years, project partners assembled and (to the extent possible) corrected collections
catalogs and plan views and maps, captured thousands of artifact images, stripped historical records
in regional archives and other repositories, and prepared written descriptions of these collections
and the new information emerging from this project. All of that information has been digitized and
is included in this website. Our hope is that this website will continue to serve as a
rich digital repository that will continue to be plumbed for new insights about the early
modern Potomac. Equally important, we hope that the website will serve all researchers and other
interested parties who wish to learn more about the Potomac, the Chesapeake, and the
Atlantic World of which it was a part.
Speaking of the Atlantic World, project members are ever mindful of the importance of situating regional
history and culture in its broader context, recognizing the value of interpretations made at
multiple scales of analysis. The micro-scale of this project is an attempt to examine the often
local responses to colonization shaped at a macro-scale, and our hope is that such micro-studies
will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Atlantic World history and culture.
This project seeks to contribute to the development of a detailed Chesapeake "archaeography" by building
on the work of hundreds of scholars who have come before us and the many colleagues who work with
us now in the region. These researchers have helped to generate the databases we used in this project,
and they have produced important interpretations about life in the colonial Chesapeake. Some of the
most interesting interpretations that have emerged have been based on comparative analysis, and we
hope to add to that discussion.
The project emerged as a collaborative, collections-based archaeological study focused on the lower
Potomac River during the first two centuries of contact (ca. 1500-1720). By taking material culture as
the point of departure, the most basic goal was to articulate a more inclusive narrative of life in
the region and situate that narrative in an Atlantic World context. Environmental conditions and
change, economic and social exchange, the use of material culture in the construction of identity, and
the relationship between geographical mobility and political borders in this region of the Atlantic
World were each a focus of inquiry and were addressed through the study of settlement patterning,
architecture, trade items, items of personal adornment, homelot organization, and foodways.
Millions of artifacts were recovered from the sites used in this analysis, including ceramics, white
and red clay tobacco pipes, bottle glass, oyster shell, animal bone, architectural artifacts, and thousands
of so-called "small finds." Small finds typically include objects found on archaeological sites in
small numbers, including scissors, needles, beads, furniture hardware, locks, horse furniture, and
so on. For this project, small finds were an important key for addressing important questions,
including questions of identity. Project staff focused considerable cataloging energy on locating,
identifying, and cataloging in detail thousands of small finds from the 34 archaeological sites. All
of this data has been included in the project database.
While time constraints prevented the re-cataloging of entire collections (with one exception), all
artifacts are necessary for building context, and the total number of artifacts recovered from all
of the sites are included in the database. These data are based on digital and paper catalogs
provided to us by cooperating institutions and the original catalog materials are included here.