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As fog burned off the wetlands at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge one recent morning, Dr. Julie Schablitsky trudged deep into the muck.

Water inundated the roads. Phragmites grew alongside. Trees that are succumbing to rising waters – collectively called “ghost forests” – loomed overhead.

For Schablitsky, Chief Archaeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA), the trek through this flooded marshland was worth it.

A team of archaeologists led by Schablitsky spent the day excavating numerous artifacts from the soggy ground. The team discovered pieces of glass, dishes, nails and other items. The fragments appeared to date to the 19th century, Schablitsky said.

The findings supported a growing sense of optimism among Schablitsky and her team that they may have found the former homesite of Ben Ross – the father of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. If confirmed, the nearly 200-year-old site would be a major archaeological find. The landmark also could be added to the nearby Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, leading to more visitors and commerce in this part of Dorchester County.

The marshes around the archaeologists, however, present a problem. The site could one day be under water.

“The important thing about excavating and trying to find Ben Ross’s site is that we’re very much worried that the rise of sea level is going to continue to impact it,” Schablitsky said. “Not just from the decomposition of the artifacts, but also the deeper you go in the soil, you start to have that water rise up. So, in 10 years, we may not even be able to access the site. It’s important that we’re excavating it today.”

Coastal resilience

On this day, Schablitsky was joined by Sandy Hertz, Assistant Director of MDOT’s Office of the Environment, and Kristen Fidler, the MDOT Maryland Port Administration (MDOT MPA)’s Director of the Office of Harbor Development. Hertz and Fidler specialize in coastal resiliency efforts and, together, got a firsthand look at the effects of sea level rise.

“Coming out to see what’s happening in terms of the archaeological dig that’s occurring out in Dorchester County just reinforces what we’re seeing in many different areas within Maryland and all up and down the East Coast, and that is flooding,” Hertz said. “There’s a lot of flooding that has been occurring, not just when it comes to extreme weather events, but because of the sea level rise, you’re seeing sunny day flooding in areas where you never had standing water on the roads in the past.”

The good news is that MDOT is doing something about it. The agency has projects underway across the state to help protect infrastructure and communities from sea level rise and flooding, including one set to begin off the coast of Dorchester County: The Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration Project.

The MDOT MPA is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Mid-Bay project to rebuild heavily eroded James and Barren islands using dredged sediment. The barrier islands have been slowly disappearing, but the ecosystem restoration project will rebuild them and turn them into sprawling natural habitats. Those habitats will help protect Dorchester County’s eroding shorelines and, ultimately, the Ross archaeological site.

The larger of the two islands, James, will have 2,072 acres restored, with 55 percent preserved as wetlands habitat and 45 percent as upland habitat. At Barren Island, 72 acres will be restored as wetlands. Pending permits, restoration at Barren Island could begin in 2022, with James Island following in 2024.

The project follows the completion of a 575-acre expansion of Poplar Island in Talbot County, which will allow MDOT MPA to place 28 million cubic yards of dredged sediment there through 2032. The Poplar Island project created wetland and upland habitat for many different species of wildlife and waterfowl.

“Really, the Port is about more than just commerce,” Fidler said. “We’re also creating environmental legacies and exploring innovative solutions.”

“Ghost forests”

MDOT’s efforts are needed to help protect the Blackwater refuge and other lands throughout the state.

In the days of Ben Ross, the area searched recently by Schablitsky and her team probably looked very similar to how it appears now, said Matt Whitbeck, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a mosaic of upland forest, forested wetlands and tidal marsh habitats. However, the refuge has seen its waters rise slowly but steadily, Whitbeck said.

“As sea levels rise and land subsides, something that’s been going on for a long time, that changes the nature of some of these areas,” Whitbeck said. “They look very similar, but maybe not in the exact same location.”

The difference these days also lies in the abundance of phragmites, which arrived with the encroaching marshland, and the health of the surrounding trees. While Ross harvested trees in the 1830s and 1840s – many of which went to the shipyards in Baltimore – the trees that grow near the excavation site now are dying. More and more salt water from rising sea levels is affecting the area. That salt water slowly poisons the trees.

Sea level rise models show the excavation site as marshland by the end of the century, Whitbeck said. As tidal habitats get pushed upslope, forests transition into tidal marshes.

“This is expected to be one of the largest areas of tidal marsh in the area,” Whitbeck said.

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s primary goal is to protect the refuge’s natural resources, the possibility of Ross’s former home being found there adds to the area’s significance, Whitbeck said. He called the search “incredibly exciting.”

“The fact that this area is so important to the story of Harriet Tubman just makes it even more important for us,” Whitbeck said. “So, working with partners with the Department of Transportation, state agencies, the National Park Service to understand what resources are here from a cultural resource standpoint, and being able to accurately interpret that story for the visitors, is just fantastic. It’s like the frosting on the cake.”

Finding the site

Last fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached out to MDOT SHA about the possibility of Ross’s former cabin being located within the Blackwater refuge. Researchers got to work immediately. They looked at land deeds, wills and other historical documents to help narrow the search for “Ben’s 10,” as it was called, after the 10 acres on which Ross lived.

Tubman visited her father’s cabin throughout her childhood and teenage years. As a teenager, she worked alongside him as he harvested trees, Schablitsky said.

“This was really the opportunity she had to learn about the wetlands and the woods and how to survive and navigate through here,” Schablitsky said.

Tubman went on to lead approximately 70 enslaved people to freedom on the so-called “Underground Railroad,” a network of safehouses for enslaved people heading north to freedom, and helped free hundreds more over the course of her life.

Archaeologists began searching the refuge for “Ben’s 10” in November, screening the mud and dirt for artifacts at approximately 1,000 sites. The team found everything from spent shotgun shell casings to pieces of brick before discovering artifacts at the excavation site. Dozens of artifacts were pulled from the site.

“Nothing is too small,” said excavation team member Diannah Bowman.

The team will submit the artifacts to an MDOT SHA laboratory for analysis. The findings appear promising, Schablitsky said. The team found pieces of brick, old nails, ceramics, glass, a button and numerous other items. They also used a metal detector not far from the excavation site to find a coin that dates to 1808.

“Those are all indicators that we’re close to something important, and that something might be Ben Ross’s home,” Schablitsky said.

After the artifacts are washed, cataloged and analyzed at the MDOT SHA archaeology lab, they will go to the Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in Southern Maryland. There, the artifacts will be curated indefinitely, Schablitsky said, though they could be loaned out to other museums that are interested in displaying them.

Even though Schablitsky has been an archaeologist for decades – it’s a field she has been interested in since she was 7 years old – she still gets excited when new artifacts show up during an excavation. That’s especially true after all the research and digging that went on during the Ross excavation.

“I was always confident that if it was here, we’d find it,” she said. “To be able to exactly know where ‘X’ marks the spot in the ground, it’s a great feeling because I think of all the potential that’s going to come out of the ground and all the new information we’re going to learn about not only Ben Ross, but Harriet Tubman and about the space she used as a training ground to bring people to freedom.”

For MDOT Secretary Greg Slater, the work being done in Dorchester County – from the archaeological dig to the barrier island project – demonstrates how transportation affects cultural, natural and community resources. Secretary Slater visited the site on another recent day with MDOT SHA Administrator Tim Smith to see the excavation firsthand.

“These men and women out here are like detectives,” Secretary Slater said. “They just uncover layers and layers, and reveal more history and more history, and complete this story. They can see the whole story before any of us can.”

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