Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky normally works on land. For this job, she learned to dive.
Then, in the murky waters of Maryland's Patuxent River, she touched a piece of the nation's past.
Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration, is helping to excavate an early U.S. vessel that fought British forces on the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.
"It's a piece of Maryland history and heritage, a symbol of strength from 200 years ago," Schablitsky said.
Most of the sunken shipwreck is covered by 6â€“9 feet of silt that a team of archaeologists from the Maryland State Highway Administration, Maryland Historical Trust and U.S. Navy began to remove this summer.
Sediment - a pollutant that fouls Bay water quality - hangs heavy in the water, too, and makes work difficult. On a good day, divers can see about 12 inches in front of them. After rain, almost nothing.
The cloudy water hampered Schablitsky's first dive at the site but made it memorable, too.
"I'm used to picking up an artifact and letting my eyes see it," Schablitsky said. "But reaching through that water and having my hand 'see' it first just took me instantly back to the War of 1812. It gave me goose bumps."
The vessel was once part of "Barney's Flotilla," a small but scrappy collection of gunboats launched in 1814 to confront the British navy on the Chesapeake Bay. The superior British naval forces had run rampant through the Bay since the war began, raiding port towns and farmland at will.
Led by Commodore Joshua Barney, the flotilla moved easily through the Bay's shallow waters and bedeviled the British as they made their way toward Washington, D.C. British ships eventually chased the flotilla to the upper reaches of the Patuxent River.
On a stifling day in August 1814, the Americans faced defeat. Rather than leave the vessels in British hands, they destroyed the flotilla and continued on foot to help defend the nation's capital.
Fifteen gunboats and Barney's flagship, the USS Scorpion, sank to the bottom of the river.
Investigators have located a handful of sites that may hold remains from Barney's Flotilla. But the current site is the only one to be explored and dated to the War of 1812.
Donald Shomette and Ralph Eshelman identified and partially excavated the wreck in 1980.
Archaeologists are now conducting the first extensive exploration, just in time for the war's bicentennial and the development of the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and National Scenic Byway.
It lies just north of the expansive wetlands of Jug Bay, where the Patuxent cuts a slow, wide serpentine path through the marsh.
But here, the river is narrow and brown, a sleepy, tree-lined stretch shorn of panoramic majesty and hardly suggestive of dramatic historic events.
Susan Langley, underwater archaeologist for the Maryland Historic Trust, said the original setting is hard to determine. Sixteen ships were scuttled, but they may have drifted apart before settling to the bottom.
The configuration of the river and its marshes have also changed greatly in 200 years. Erosion has dumped so much sediment into the upper reaches of the Patuxent River that the ships of 1814 would run aground today.
Langley said that British reports noted 13 merchant schooners floating upstream of the flotilla, six of which the British burned.
"Isn't it amazing to try to visualize 30 vessels in the upper Patuxent?" Langley asked.
Archaeologists spent most of the summer diving from an open-air barge anchored beside the shipwreck. After suctioning large amounts of silt away from its timbers, they mapped the size of the wreck and the location of its features.
They sometimes used an unusual aid: a Zip-Loc bag filled with clear water and a glow stick. Pressed to their scuba masks, it cuts through the murk.
White plastic pipes poke above the waterline, outlining the 75-foot hull like points in connect-the-dots.
Underwater, divers found that burial in the oxygen-starved sediment has left both the wreck and its artifacts in remarkably good condition.
The ship's bow points upstream with clear evidence of rigging. Planks from the deck have a surprising yellow sheen, indicating that the wood is well-preserved. The timbers of the stern are jagged and strewn, likely torn apart by the explosion that scuttled the ship.
Divers were able to sit in the hold that contained the crew's personal belongings and provisions. In one location they felt a barrel, still sitting on its shelf.
Over the next few years, a temporary coffer dam will be erected around the site and water drained from the enclosure. Archaeologists will then begin a full-scale search for artifacts.
This year, they only brought a few artifacts to the surface - those that were dislodged, at risk of damage, or part of the general site survey. Among them were a stoneware bottle, scissors and a corn cob.
On one of the summer's last dives, Schablitsky groped through the butterlike clay near the ship's hold and found a slender glass bottle.
"When I lifted it out of the mud, air bubbles trapped from Aug. 22, 1814, were released and traveled up to meet the 21st century," Schablitsky said.
When researchers explored the wreck in 1980, they believed they had found the flagship Scorpion. Schablitsky is more cautious. "We have something here related to 1812. What that is, we aren't ready to say yet."
Medical supplies and a cup with initials of the flotilla's cook were retrieved from the earlier dig. Langley said their presence suggests the wreck could indeed be that of the Scorpion.
"But we would love to find something really definitive," Langley said.