By David Malakoff |

These artifacts were also found at the fort: (from top) an iron buckle, a quartzite projectile point, a white clay tobacco pipe stem, and European ceramic sherds. | Credit: David Malakoff

The nearly 400-year-old silver coin was, Stephanie Stevens recalled, “the most memorable artifact I’ve ever found.” Last fall, the young archaeologist was scooping dirt at a dig in St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s earliest European settlement and first capital, when she caught the glint of the wafer-thin, inch-wide English shilling embossed with the profile of a crowned and bearded king. “It was just sitting there, right beneath my shovel,” she said. “Took me by surprise.” Once the shock wore off, however, Stevens and her colleagues were elated. The rare find was another sign that they had solved a longstanding mystery: the location of a log fort that the city’s English founders had constructed at Yaocomaco, a Native American village near the Chesapeake Bay, soon after they arrived in early 1634.

The researchers soon learned that the king on the coin was Charles I of England, who was beheaded in 1649 after ending up on the losing side of a civil war. Other markings on the shilling, which doesn’t carry a date, revealed that artisans working in the Tower of London had struck it in 1633 or 1634. Taken together with other artifacts found by the team—including the remains of timber walls, a religious medallion, lead musket balls, and an ornamental copper tinkling cone—the shilling “really increased our confidence that we had, finally, found the original fort,” said archaeologist Travis Parno, the director of research and collections at Historic St. Mary’s City, a state-funded living museum that manages some one thousand acres around the settlement.

Lead shot found from two excavation units in the northern portion of St. Mary's Fort. | Credit: Historic St. Mary’s City
Archaeological technician August Rowell examines soils. | Credit: Historic St. Mary’s City
Part of a medallion that was attached to a Rhenish stoneware jug that dated from 1550-1650. | Credit: Historic St. Mary’s City

The fort’s discovery—which was kept secret for several years before being publicly revealed this past March—ended a long search for the four-sided stockade, which had eluded archaeologists for more than a half century. “The fort was one of the last big missing pieces” of the community built by the early European colonists, Parno said. But the find isn’t just an end, he emphasized during a recent visit to the dig: it also marks the beginning of a promising new era of archaeological discovery at Historic St. Mary’s City.

Stephanie Stevens, Travis Parno, and August Rowell examine a site map. | Credit: Historic St. Mary’s City
This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.  

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