The Banneker Site (18BA282) is the 18th-century home of Benjamin Banneker in Baltimore County, Maryland. Known as America’s first African American man of science, Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught astronomer and mathematician, author of six almanacs, and an assistant in the original survey of Washington, D.C. The Banneker farm, where he lived between 1737 and 1806, consisted of two wooden dwellings with cellars from two periods, an orchard, a fence, and a cemetery where Benjamin Banneker and his family are buried.
The Banneker Site has yielded valuable information about the life and material culture of Benjamin Banneker, an important figure in American history, but it has also provided details about the lifestyles of free African Americans living in Maryland during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
In 1979, Charles Wagandt and a group of local citizens began to search for Banneker’s house and grave site. As a part of this effort, Ralph DiMino excavated an eight-by-eight-foot test unit at one possible location, but uncovered no evidence of the house site. In 1982, Wagandt and others unsuccessfully investigated three additional areas that were reported to be the Banneker house site. Wagandt then requested that the Maryland Historical Trust conduct an archaeological investigation to locate the Banneker homesite and associated cemetery.
In 1983, the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks purchased a portion of the original Banneker property to establish a commemorative park. That same year, Robert J. Hurry conducted a three-month-long Phase I archaeological survey of 72 acres owned by Banneker at the time of his death. Systematic shovel testing within the tract located three clusters of 18th- and early 19th-century artifacts, which were determined to be the archaeological remains of the Benjamin Banneker farmstead.
In 1985, 393 shovel test pits were dug at 20-foot intervals to define artifact concentrations and site boundaries. An additional 56 shovel test pits were excavated at 10-foot intervals to further define four activity areas, Areas IA-ID. Each shovel test pit measured approximately one foot in diameter and was excavated to sterile subsoil or to a depth of six inches deeper than the average subsoil depth in nearby shovel tests. All soil was screened through ¼-inch mesh, and soil samples were collected to measure concentrations of phosphate, calcium, magnesium, and potash, and the soil’s relative pH. Forty-one five-by-five-foot test units were excavated in the four activity areas to collect additional artifact samples and to identify subsurface features. All soil from the test units was screened through ¼-inch mesh, and soil samples were collected from each layer. Only a small number of features were excavated in 1985, but soil samples were taken from each. A remote sensing survey was also conducted using proton magnetometry and ground penetrating radar, but it was not useful in determining the location of possible features at the site.
In 1986, an additional 103 shovel test pits were dug at 10 foot intervals, and 49 test units were excavated to refine the boundaries of cultural activity areas and investigate subsurface features in Areas IA-IC. Features 10 and 22, the two cellar holes, were partially excavated during this season, with Feature 10 appearing to represent the first Banneker dwelling on the site. The vast majority of the Banneker Site has been preserved for future research.
Over 28,000 artifacts were recovered from the Banneker Site, with the majority associated with the Banneker occupation. Artifact analysis was used to detail not only how Banneker’s family lived as free African Americans in a plantation society, but how Benjamin Banneker’s lifestyle changed during his life. In addition, this analysis revealed Banneker’s status compared to other landowners, and his household’s participation in the local and regional economies.
For the minimum vessel analysis, 277 ceramic vessels were identified, representing utilitarian, dining, and drinking wares. Further examinations suggested that Banneker utilized significantly more ceramic vessels when he lived alone in the later structure on the property than when he lived in the earlier dwelling with his mother and siblings. The 33 glass bottles recovered were of various sizes and functions. Only four table glass vessels were recovered. One spoon, two forks, and five knives comprised the tableware objects found at the site.
Faunal analysis suggested that the Banneker household’s diet also changed over time. Animal bones included the remains of domestic species, such as cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, and wild varieties, such as white and yellow perch, box turtle, and oysters. This analysis, combined with historical research, suggests that prior to 1760 the Bannekers depended on wild species and animals raised on their farm, but purchased more food at the local store, Ellicott & Co., after that date.
Other recovered objects reflect various activities that occurred at the Banneker homesite. Nine slate pencil fragments, a possible slate tablet, and a ground glass lens for a telescope or other optical instrument represent some of the objects that Banneker probably used for his scientific research. Personal items included a blade from a straight razor, five coins, 54 buttons, nine shoe buckle fragments, two thimbles, four glass beads, a jaw harp, and 25 straight pins. Artifacts from farm and subsistence activities included a grubbing hoe, an oxen shoe, 3 horse bosses, three harness buckle fragments, 83 gunflints and flakes, and 68 lead shot.
Records in the Banneker collection are housed in five letter-sized archival clamshells, a 6-inch x 12-inch archival box, nine oversized enclosures, and one document roll. All documents are original and in good condition, with minimal dirt and staining.
Excavation records include unit records, feature records, plan drawings, and profile drawings. The records are organized by excavation unit number; feature records are included in the folder of the unit in which they were encountered. The exceptions are Features 10 and 87, which occurred across multiple units and were given their own folders. All excavation records are searchable via the database using unit coordinates, layer, lot, date, and feature number, although a search by layer may not generate all relevant documents.
Field journals are organized according to date and author and have been scanned as .PDF files. Although accessible online, these files are not searchable. Other similar files include progress reports, survey documents, artifact and ecofact analyses, and artifact catalogs. One report is present, The Discovery and Archaeological Investigations of the Benjamin Banneker Homestead, by Robert J. Hurry; typewritten reports are accessible online as .PDFs and are word searchable.
Photographs taken on-site or in post-processing are available through the online database, and are searchable using the above criteria. Researchers should note that images are not linked directly to specific documents, and photograph records do not necessarily exist for all features or units. Original images consist of slides, negatives, contact sheets, and prints. All records are housed at the MAC Lab.
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