When anthropology professor Chuck Fithian was a high school senior in Wicomico County in the 1970s, he and his best friends shared a common passion: the science of archaeology. “We were all interested in science, and being able to ‘discover’ things really excited us,” Fithian says. “We also wanted to do it correctly, so we were pretty careful to follow archaeological methods as best as we could.”
They started finding sites and registering them with the state archeologists. “They’d come down and look at the artifacts that we were finding, and we would work with them on projects they were involved with. That they took the time to work with a group of teenagers really excited us, so we thought we were pretty hot stuff.”
Their passion led to many great finds, including Native American and colonial American sites, all registered with the Maryland Historical Trust. The young archaeologists would fill out the site forms, record what they saw at each site, and submit them to the Trust.
One particular site in Talbot County dated from 1680 to 1720 was so prolific, the group found it as they were looking in another field nearby. “There were pieces of glass, ceramics, and pipes just sticking up out of the plowed farmland. Thousands of artifacts, unearthed and waiting to be found,” Fithian recalls. Little did he know at the time that his passion would inspire and educate aspiring archaeologists many years later, instilling in them the same sense of fervor Fithian felt in his late teens.
Fithian started working professionally in archaeology in 1977 as a staff archaeologist at Historic St. Mary’s City. He spent 28 years as Curator of Archaeology for the State of Delaware. All that time, Fithian held on to the Talbot collection, knowing something special was in store. Finally, the collection made its way to Washington College when Fithian joined the faculty.
“The collection sat in my parents’ house in Salisbury until a number of years ago. This was a project screaming for attention,” Fithian says. “It served as the basis for the archaeological lab classes I started in 2014, and my Material Culture classes in 2015. Reading copies of the notes I had written in 1971 for these classes was real Déjà vu.”
Anthropology major Mike Whisenant ’17 has spent countless hours working on a thesis partially based on items from Fithian’s 46-year-old collection, which includes glass, ceramics, stone tools, and more. “My thesis is regarding specifically the European tools. The tools I’m working with are strike-a-lights—pieces of European stone that were used to strike against steel in order to create fire,” Whisenant says. “I’m also working with gun flints that create sparks to fire flint lock guns. They’re often overlooked if you’re not trained to recognize them; they look like regular stones on the ground.”
Whisenant’s hands-on experience with Fithian’s collection has also given him a strong grasp on the social history of the tools. “Professor Fithian brings that to the table, the knowledge of how the tools were used, so it’s really helpful for studying the artifacts,” Whisenant says. “I think in material culture, we focus too much on the tools themselves and forget about the cultural aspects to them.”
The vast collection also provides insights about the location where the artifacts were found. Asking bigger questions about how such specific pieces came to rest in a field in Talbot County is part of the learning process, Fithian believes. “The artifacts are giving us a really interesting clue. There is nothing here past 1720, and the artifact volume is beyond what might be expected for a domestic site of this period. But the geography behind it doesn’t make any sense. If you look at the site, it’s way out in this field,” he says. “The students and I started kicking this idea around that this was a mercantile site — and a student’s research proved that the property owner was a prominent merchant from Calvert County. He owned the site from 1686-1719, and the artifacts in the collection are the remnants of his Eastern Shore activity.”
While discovering things in the dirt is hugely rewarding to Fithian, the research and analysis is equally valuable. Pamela Holland ’17, who has done extensive lab work with the collection, couldn’t agree more. “My knowledge about ceramic identification and classification has grown in leaps and bounds,” Holland says.
By examining the Talbot collection and trying to answer the questions it poses, students are also gaining a better understanding of early colonial life in Maryland, particularly here on the Eastern Shore. There was little scholarly study of the early colonial Chesapeake region before the 1960s, Fithian says, and though the field of inquiry has grown, 17th-century life on the Eastern Shore remains the least understood. “Bring the collection to Washington College and getting students involved in scholarly research is starting to change that situation.”