WASHINGTON – Budweiser cans and 10,000-year-old artifacts are unlikely companions. But on Maryland beaches, the two commingle more frequently than archeologists would like.
“As the shoreline erodes, it breaks off chunks of the bank,” said Darrin Lowery, a research archeologist, “and anything in that bank becomes part of the eroded beach and becomes a part of what’s modern.”
Worse than ancient objects mixing with modern material, said Lowery, are objects being carried into the ocean. Gaps in the historical record may never be filled if important artifacts are lost.
“The archeological database is a nonrenewable resource,” Lowery said. “Once it is gone, it is gone.”
But state archeologists, strapped for cash to survey important sites, much less preserve them, cannot say to what degree erosion is affecting Maryland’s archeological sites. And they cannot even agree on the value of sites that litter the state.
Not “every place that a Native American sat down and made a tool is important,” said Richard Hughes, the chief of the archeology office in the Maryland Historical Trust.
Lowery said that while archeologists and historians squabble over the importance of sites, the threat from erosion remains very real.
“It is a big headache with 4,000 linear miles of shoreline” in Maryland, he said. “That is a big amount of terrain to address.”
Unrestrained erosion will destroy sites that someone deems valuable, said Lowery. He estimates that 70 to 80 percent of Kent Island’s approximately 200 sites, which represent everything from prehistoric to modern times, are in danger.
“It certainly is a significant threat,” said Tyler Bastian, an archeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust. “As to what is to be done, that is a bit of a problem.”
There are a variety of shoreline stabilization options for threatened sites, said Bob Sonderman, senior staff archeologist in the National Capital Region for the National Park Service. One is planting sea grasses. This “can be a long-term solution if the grasses take hold and they really thrive,” said Sonderman.
Other options include dumping “huge quantities of gravel to buffer” the shore, using what Sonderman defined as “screen baskets full of rock” — also known as gabions — and riparian buffers, which are mixture of grasses and trees.
Sonderman could not even give a ballpark figure for how much it would cost to stabilize potentially significant archeological sites around the bay, but Hughes said it would certainly amount to millions. And there is no way of predicting whether they would be successful.
“Water finds the easiest route,” said Sonderman. “It can work its way around (buffers) and sometimes it can cause even more damage.”
Lowery said the first response to erosion should be to examine the threatened sites and determine just how imperiled they are. Under the best scenario, a non-profit would be set up with $2 million to $3 million at its disposal to save the sites in gravest danger of eroding away.
But Hughes said that Maryland does not even have the money for an extensive survey of potentially significant sites, much less money to fund shoreline stabilization projects for those sites.
He noted that the Governor’s Task Force on the Preservation and Enhancement of Maryland’s Heritage Resources this month recommended that the state set aside $500,000 in emergency funding for threatened historical or archeological sites. The task force report capped a year of study of the state’s endangered heritage sites, outlining 14 protection strategies.
The Historical Trust would control the money, if it is authorized. But even if it is, Hughes noted, only a portion of the emergency fund would go toward archeological sites, because the money would also have to be stretched to cover other things of historic value, such as buildings.
Hughes said that ideally “there would be money so that we could get enough people to excavate” important sites. But in reality, the trust has to “focus the resources we have on protecting and saving them (the most threatened sites), or at least recovering materials and information.”
Lowery argued that saving the materials should be looked at as an investment in the future, not just a look into the past. Preservation, he said, could lead to heritage tourism, a potential boon to the state’s economy. But no one will come to Maryland to see historical artifacts if the state does not recover them or preserve the archeological sites where they are located.
Hughes does not disagree with the importance of investing in preservation, but he does not see the payoff in archeological tourism that Lowery envisions. He said that most sites people want to visit are already preserved. And additional sites will rarely be preserved for tourist reasons, because it is such a big expense to do so.
“It is partly my job at the state to say that, unfortunately, there is not enough money to do everything,” Hughes said.