WASHINGTON – The map itself looked like it had only been dug up a few days earlier. Yellow tape held the creases together and pencil smudges blurred the shoreline diagram underneath — like charcoal smudges over a treasure map.
But this was no typical treasure map. Many of the marks were scrawled over the blue parts of the map, out in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
“Those,” a state archeologist said, pointing to the markings, are sites where Maryland’s history is “actively eroding.”
The battle against the bay is just one part of a campaign that Maryland’s historians, archeologists and, now, even politicians are waging to preserve the state’s history from disappearing.
Sometimes the enemy comes in the form of development, sometimes it is the threat of erosion and other times it is the overzealous efforts of the movement’s own foot soldiers that have hurt preservation projects.
While the threat varies from case to case, officials agree the state’s “sense of community … our very soul” is at risk without action to help preserve historic and prehistoric sites and structures around Maryland.
Officials across the state have rallied together in a variety of ways in response to those threats. State workers track the spread of urban sprawl around Civil War battle sites. Local citizens organize history groups to educate neighbors about Maryland’s small-town past. Some even lend a hand in unearthing the remains of centuries-old civilizations.
But state Archeologist Richard Hughes said there is still much to be done.
“There’s not enough money for emergency salvaging, there’s not enough support for local and county preservation projects,” he said. “We’re weak in historic preservation and archeology programs for (state) universities and colleges.”
Those problems led to the appointment last year of a gubernatorial task force that was directed to find ways to keep the state’s heritage from being paved over and plowed under.
The Governor’s Task Force on the Preservation and Enhancement of Maryland’s Heritage Resources released its initial recommendations this month, unveiling a 14-point plan to save the state’s historic and archeological treasures — and potential treasures — from destruction or dispersion.
The plan, called “Preserving a Quality of Life,” presented a number of strategies intended to preserve the state’s heritage. They included calls for more local and state history in public school lessons; increased funding for state heritage programs; and tax incentives for property owners who help in preservation.
The report released this month was short on details, containing no specific funding levels for the various programs or proposed legislation. A more-detailed report is due out next month, when the General Assembly will convene for the 2001 legislative session.
Despite the problems cited in Maryland, the state generally wins high praise from members of national preservation groups, who say Maryland has been a leader in the field of protecting historic and archeological resources.
Brona Smith, a former president of the National Association of State Archeologists, called Maryland’s efforts in “archeology and state history preservation one of the most advanced in the country.”
She said Maryland regularly finds innovative solutions to preservation problems, solutions that are often duplicated by other states. Among those, Smith said, are long-range funding and well-designed web sites that make information easily accessible to builders and scholars alike.
An official in the National Trust for Historic Preservation also praised Maryland’s push for preservation.
“They are one of the leaders in the country,” said Lisa Burcham, director of the group’s state policy watchdog division. She ticked off a number of the state’s “excellent advances” such preservation laws, Smart Growth programs and tax credit initiatives.
“(Maryland) is a major innovator,” she said.
The praise is nice, but for Hughes, the state archeologist, the stakes are too high to rest now.
Hughes, who has combed the earth from the Illinois to Israel, is driven by a desire to bring out “what came before.” The importance of the past is the same to him, whether it’s from a prehistoric civilization or a modern factory.
But preservation, he added, is not just about the past.
“If you look at mass movements like civil rights,” said Hughes, they all began with the theme, “we have a history.”