Rebuilding History

It can be a little disconcerting to listen to Al Luckenbach talk about Scott Street. To hear him tell it, it's a bustling place---the region's main north-south thoroughfare---lined with houses, shops, warehouses, even a tavern. As he describes its architectural and geographic traits he tilts his head eastward or points vaguely with his thumb.

Finally, you have to ask, "Are we talking about a real street here?"

"Oh no, no," he says. "It's not here anymore. I'm talking about where that little gully is." Scott Street, it turns out, has been covered by the sands of time for more than a century. But in the seven years that Luckenbach, the archaeologist for Anne Arundel County, has been excavating the lost town of London, he's grown so familiar with the area's long-buried geography that Scott Street has attained a degree of reality for him.

Such is the lot of the archaeologist. Where the rest of us see broken pottery and rusty nails, he sees the remnants of a tavern. Where we see a block of discolored soil, he sees the foundation of a house long-demolished.

And at London Town, what appears to most of us to be some piles of dirt, a few roped-off holes, and several wooden planks, looks like a thriving colonial seaport to Luckenbach.

London Town was established in 1683. At its height (in the 1720s and 1730s) it was an active port town with 40 to 50 developed lots, a number of planned streets, ferry landings and wharves.

The town supported shipwrights, rope makers, carpenters and joiners, a tailor, a staymaker and a wigmaker. Its decline began in the 1750s, and by the end of the American Revolution was little more than a small cluster of buildings around a ferry landing.

By the early 19th century it was just three or four farms, one of which included the imposing brick William Brown House that still stands on the banks of the South River. Built between 1758 and 1764, it served as the Anne Arundel County almshouse from 1828 to 1965.

Today, the town of London is part of Historic London Town and Gardens, a 23-acre park in Edgewater owned by Anne Arundel County and managed by the non-profit London Town Foundation. Luckenbach, director of the Lost Towns Project that explores colonial sites in the county, leads teams of professionals, interns, volunteers and schoolchildren in excavating and archiving the site's wealth of artifacts and archaeological evidence of life in early America.

Among London Town's current projects is the reconstruction of the Lord Mayor's Tenement, a 20- by 20-foot wooden dwelling with an adjacent garden and yard. Drawings for the building were made by Willie Graham, architectural historian with the Colonial Williams-burg Foundation. Graham designed the two-story, two-room tenement structure with the assistance of an archaeological grid map and a wealth of data provided by the Lost Towns Project. The building features a clapboard roof, siding and covering around the chimney. Housewright Russell Steele heads the construction using period materials, tools and methods, including post-in-ground architecture, traditional wood framing members and handcrafted finishing work.

As the tenement rises, Luckenbach continues to run educational programs every Wednesday at London Town. More than 8,000 students visit the site each year to experience history first-hand. "It's not just a tour or a chance to let them watch the excavation. It's not a dig of a reproduced site. We put them to work," explains Luckenbach. "They dig, screen the soil, pick out artifacts. They help with the real archaeological data. You'd be surprised how excited a young kid can get digging up broken glass, pieces of pottery, rusty nails."

Luckenbach is particularly attuned to that excitement. His own interest in archaeology dates back to his childhood. "You know how every second- and third-grader likes Indians and dinosaurs? Well, I liked them then and I've liked them ever since. Quite clearly, I've never grown up," he says.

Grown up or not, as Luckenbach has gotten older he's learned that the desire to investigate the exotic can be fulfilled right here in Maryland. "I found out that you don't have to go to the Yucatan to dig up lost towns," he says. "The Indians first came to Anne Arundel County 13,000 years ago. We have more known archaeological sites in this county than any other place in Maryland."

Luckenbach majored in anthropology at the University of Virginia. For his senior project, he studied Indian soap stone bowls, using radio chemistry, a neutron activation analysis, to determine what quarries the bowls came from. He went to graduate school at the University of Kentucky and wrote his master's thesis on Aztec lexical statistics. For his doctoral degree., he studied ancient Greek coin hordes in the Mediterranean basin.

"If you had an hour I could explain how all those are connected," he says of his educational endeavors, but it takes surprisingly little time for him to draw them all together. The basic thread running through his studies: the analysis of cultural clues, whether physical or linguistic, to trace the movement, and therefore the history, of peoples. His work at London Town reflects this ongoing interest in historical movement; his exploration of the site is not limited to its heyday but is equally attentive to signs of its growth and decline.

Today, the rise and fall of London Town includes a new chapter. In addition to the ongoing historic and archaeological work at the site, the park's horticulture program includes a winter garden, wildflower walk and azalea glade, as well as vegetables and herbs grown from heirloom seeds. The London Town Foundation sponsors a number of events, including concerts, afternoon teas, plant sales and lectures on the history of Maryland. And a visitor's center and museum is in the works.

Overseeing all these projects is Donna Ware, who took over as interim director of Historic London Town and Gardens after Greg Stiverson resigned to lead the Historic Annapolis Foundation. Ware has published a book, Anne Arundel's Legacy, on the historic buildings of Anne Arundel County, and served as chair of the Annapolis Historical Preservation Commission for eight years. She is currently the county's historic sites planner, working to record and protect the area's historic buildings. And, since 1990, she's been married to Luckenbach, who explains the division of labor in their professional lives: "When a building is standing, it's her job. When it falls, it's mine."

London Town is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. The public is invited to join Luckenbach and his team on six Archaeology Dig Days: April 5, May 10, June 14, July 12, Aug. 9, and Sept. 6. For more information, call 410-222-1919.


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