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Wal-Mart’s First Dig 

12-09-2015 17:35

When Wal-Mart proposed to build a new store in the North Point section of Baltimore County, Md., preservationists concerned about the national chain’s reputation for siphoning business from historic downtowns and encouraging sprawl took a close look at the project. The proposed development posed no threats to historic properties, but it did rest on a site associated with the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.

The local preservation organization, the Baltimore County Historical Trust, Inc., took action. With the invaluable aid of Baltimore County Executive C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, they persuaded Wal-Mart to fund an archeological survey of the site—the first ever paid for by the national corporation. As a result, a sweltering July 18th found more than 30 volunteers under the direction of archeologists Jody Hopkins and Norma Baumgartner-Wagner picking their way across a grass-covered field in search of artifacts.

In the vanguard, four participants wielding metal detectors identified spots where the others should dig. Using techniques explained in a training session the previous evening, they bagged every object they discovered—from metal scrap to nail—and recorded its location.

Two weeks later, the volunteers were invited to help clean and catalog the artifacts. “We were trying something new,” recalls archeologist Norma Baumgartner-Wagner. Not only had the archeologists not worked with such a large group of volunteers before; by incorporating metal detectors into their field methods, they were testing a little-used survey technique.

The detectors’ potential for locating metal artifacts on open fields had been documented by Douglas D. Scott at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1984. But the metal detectors’ inclusion created another opportunity as well. To the organizers, the survey also represented a chance “to bring metal detector enthusiasts into the process so we could learn to work together,” Baumgartner-Wagner said. “People often worry about metal detector users vandalizing archeological sites. We wanted everyone to see that the artifact is only valuable for what it tells us about how people used a site. Out of context, it’s nothing.”

Although the project failed to uncover any war-related artifacts, it succeeded on several fronts. The archeologists learned valuable lessons about the pros and cons of metal-detector surveying. The volunteers deepened their appreciation of the methods and goals of archeology. Wal-Mart gained some positive publicity, set a valuable precedent by voluntarily sponsoring an archeological survey, and helped to promote recognition of Baltimore County’s role in the War of 1812. Building on its experience, the Baltimore County Historical Trust plans to work with Maryland’s new War of 1812 tourism initiative and conduct a survey of a second location associated with that war. It will encourage local developers to voluntarily make archeology part of their site development process. And a report on the metal detector survey at North Point, prepared by Joseph Hopkins Associates, will be available by year’s end.

Publication Date: November/December 1998

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Author(s):Judith S. Kremen