History of the Project

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In 2002, colleagues from a number of institutions in Maryland and Virginia began collaborating on “A Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture.” This project explores the material conditions of culture contact, plantation development and organization, the rise of slavery, and consumer behavior. Archaeologists from Anne Arundel County’s Lost Towns Project, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, George Washington’s Fredericksburg Foundation, Historic Mount Vernon, and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory are participating in the project. The project is also supported by generous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

This effort at comparative analysis grew out of many years of informal group discussions concerning the nature of the colonial experience in the Chesapeake. A growing archaeological database was strongly suggesting considerable intra-regional variability among assemblages, calling into question efforts to lump the Maryland and Virginia Tidewater into a single culture region. Although both colonies produced tobacco for English and European markets, the material assemblages recovered from sites occupied at the same time are different enough to suggest important chronological and geographical variability.

At the same time, project members are ever mindful of the importance of situating Chesapeake history and culture in much broader contexts, recognizing the value of interpretations made at multiple scales. While this particular project directs its regional focus inward, members recognize that Chesapeake society operated in a much larger “Atlantic” world. Project members are strongly committed to understanding that world and believe that that effort begins by building rich, detailed contexts at what might be described as micro-levels.


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 use in our 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 (for example, architecture and faunal assemblages), and we hope to add to that discussion.

To that end, project members assembled an electronic database of artifacts recovered from 18 archaeological sites spanning the period c. 1620 through the mid-18th century. These sites come from throughout Maryland and Virginia, with concentrations in areas experiencing considerable 20th- and 21st-century land development pressures. Each database has been standardized in the format we are using for the project, and copies of each are downloadable elsewhere on this site. Other information—site histories, excavations, previous interpretations, and our own analyses—are presented as well.

Sixteen of the 18 sites used in the project were owned and occupied by English colonists, including landowners and their families, servants and slaves. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts were recovered from these sites, including ceramics, white and red clay tobacco pipes, shell, bone, architectural artifacts, and thousands of so-called “small finds.” Two sites represent Native American households occupied during the second half of the 17th century; the assemblages from both consist overwhelmingly of Indian artifacts, including ceramics, tobacco pipes, and, at one site, shell beads.

One notable point is that all sites but two have large plow zone artifact assemblages. These assemblages are invaluable for documenting and interpreting the organization and economic and social use of domestic space. In addition, plow zone and feature distributions of artifacts typically considered “small finds” are being used to refine interpretations about the use of household space. Small finds typically include objects found in small numbers, such as scissors, needles, furniture hardware, locks, horse furniture, and so on.

About the Project

A multi-year and multi-institution collaboration aimed at standardizing and synthesizing archaeological data for important sites in the Potomac River Valley during the period 1500-1720.

Technical Data

How we gathered and organized the data, details about the databases, information for those who want to download and work with the data.

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