Archaeology educator Kathy Concannon sees at least two stories in the fragmented rocks at her feet.

The rough gray chunks are etched with the lines of human effort-Native American petroglyphs. For thousands of years, these carvings were among those that adorned the rock face high above the Susquehanna River as it approaches the Chesapeake Bay.

The first story Concannon sees in the rocks is one that remains to be told, about the meaning behind the designs and the people who made them. The second is about lost opportunity.

"These petroglyphs were dynamited during work on the Conowingo Dam," Concannon said. "So we've lost the context they existed in."

Context is a priceless feature for archaeologists as they interpret vestiges of the past. Today, the broken petroglyphs rest at a laboratory in Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. Concannon uses them as a teaching tool to explain the process of archaeology to the increasing number of public visitors who tour the lab.

Treasures from Maryland soil have been quietly accumulating at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, near the mouth of the Patuxent River, for a decade. The park is home to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, where archaeologists and volunteers have preserved, catalogued and archived more than 7 million state and federally owned artifacts from all areas of Maryland.

Over time, the park has become a setting where everyone-not just professionals-can explore archaeology and its outcomes.

Executive director Michael Smolek said that visitors are curious about artifacts that have been found at the park and brought here for storage. But the expanding range of exhibits and events show that digging for artifacts isn't the sole aim of archaeology. The real goal is to unearth stories about people, land and they way they have interacted through time.

"It's not what you find. It's what you find out," Smolek said.

Jefferson Patterson Park is an excellent place to convey this message. The 560-acre park stretches along two and a half miles of the Patuxent River at the mouth of St. Leonard Creek. The abundance of river life, combined with good soil and easy travel on the waterways, has drawn humans to these shores for at least 9,000 years-and evidence of their experiences has been left remarkably intact.

The park grounds encompass more than 70 high-quality archaeological sites that document Native American communities, colonial farming and the experience of enslaved African Americans. Both land and water have yielded artifacts from the Battle of St. Leonard Creek, which took place in 1814 between British and U.S. forces. The battle was the largest naval engagement in Maryland's history.

From mid-May through early July, the public archaeology program welcomes day-trippers and regular volunteers for hands-on experiences in the field or in the lab, under the supervision of professional archaeologists.

"It's not simulated. It's real," Smolek said.

People who prefer to observe can attend open houses at the lab or take walking tours of work sites. Four hiking trails and one driving trail travel through woods and wetlands. A brochure and interpretive panels highlight natural features and historic sites and explain how archaeology has unraveled their histories.

A new exhibit on archaeology is expected to debut at the visitors center later this summer.

"People ask all the time, 'how do you know where to dig?' and 'what's the best thing you've found?'" Smolek said. "This exhibit will target all of those frequently asked questions and give people a great introduction to archaeology."

It will also clear up some misconceptions. "Archaeology is not about dinosaurs," Smolek said.

At Jefferson Patterson Park, Native American sites have produced the oldest artifacts-stone spear tips and axes more than 7,000 years old. Approximately 40 Native American sites have been identified, although most have yet to be explored.

Many of the findings come from two extremely rich sites which date to the Woodland period, between 400 and 3,000 years ago. One of the native communities noted by Captain John Smith in 1608 may also be located within the park's grounds.

An Eastern Woodland Indian village has been recreated along the shores of the river to bring the findings of archaeology to life. Visitors can step inside the dwellings to explore detailed examples of native building techniques, as well as gardening, cooking and tool-making.

Colonial sites date to the period when Richard Smith and his descendants (no relation to John Smith) owned the land, which was known as St. Leonard. Smith was the first attorney general of Maryland and drew the General Assembly and Provincial Council to his property on several occasions.

The Smith house and outbuildings have been an exciting hub for the public archaeology program. Archaeologists were guided to their exact locations by a set of 1773 court papers that include a detailed map of the Smith family property, and excavations continue today.

Cannonballs, musket shot and other military artifacts echo the events of June 1814. The Battle of St. Leonard Creek was a dramatic confrontation between British and U.S. ships during the War of 1812. The British were edging their way north and burned the government buildings in Washington, D.C., including the White House, about three months later.

Among the battle artifacts are two U.S. gunboats that were left behind as the Americans escaped a British blockade. The boats have been partially excavated from their underwater resting place.

The battle makes Jefferson Patterson Park a favorite spot for living history events focused on the war. The North American Grand Tactical-a large international gathering of re-enactors for the War of 1812-will come to the park for the first time in September 2008. The event will draw approximately 1,000 "troops," including some from Britain, along with tall ships on the river.

"Traditionally, they've held the event at New York and Canada forts," said marketing coordinator Megan Williams. "They are really excited about being this far south, with so much space on the waterfront."

The land is also rich with African American heritage. Volunteers have been critical in reconstructing the history of Sukeek, an enslaved woman, and her family. Sukeek's descendants shared family stories that helped to identify the remains of her cabin and piece together the family's life on the farm. They and other volunteers are also helping to excavate and document the cabin site.

Jefferson Patterson Park is also a stop on the Maryland Underground Railroad Network. Two men enslaved here successfully escaped to the North, enlisted in the Union Army, and became free. Charles Ball, whose story was recorded in a ground-breaking slave narrative, lived in this same area of Calvert County and was on board a U.S. ship during the Battle of St. Leonard Creek.

While the land is thick with history, it also maintains a modern draw for hikers, birders, astronomers, landscape artists, family picnics and wedding parties.

With so many layers of activity existing in one place, Smolek finds it impossible to frame the park within in any one theme or time frame. And that's consistent with at least one truth that archaeology confirms: The exchange between humans and the landscape overlap and echo through time.

"There's certainly something here for everyone," Smolek said.

Upcoming Events

  • Opening Day & Earth Day Celebration: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 19. Tours and activities highlight archaeology, the environment and native cultures. Bring artifacts or antique ceramics and glass for identification.

  • From BayScapes to Living Shorelines: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 17. This hands-on family workshop explores Bay stewardship actions that families can take in their own backyard.

  • Children's Day on the Farm: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 1. Celebrate Maryland's agricultural heritage.

  • 13th Annual African American Family Community Day: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 21.

  • The War of 1812 North American Grand Tactical: Sept. 20-21. Events include battle re-enactments, historic crafts, tall ships and camp life, About 1,000 re-enactors from the United States, Canada and Britain participate.

Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum

The grounds and trails are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday year-round. The visitors center and exhibits are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday April 16 through Nov. 3. The canoe and kayak launch is available during the same hours for $5 per vessel.

  • The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory: Open houses take place monthly and tours can be arranged by appointment. There are hands-on workshops and volunteer opportunities for all ages.

  • Native American Heritage: Eastern Woodland Indian Village Days include workshops, guided walks and demonstrations of native skills and traditions such as stone tools, fire-making, games and fishing methods.

  • African American Heritage: Monthly sessions on archaeology highlight African Americans on the park grounds.

  • War Comes to the Chesapeake: Monthly guest speakers discuss the Chesapeake's role in the War of 1812.

The best way to learn about the park's events is to request a calendar of events from the park office or visit its website, www.jefpat.org.

Contact: 410-586-8501 or jppm@mdp.state.md.us.