By Alex Bird
After being closed to due to preservation issues last academic year, one of Maryland’s premier archeological sites, the St. John’s Freehold, has reopened its doors, offering free admission to students and visitors alike. Located in the woods behind Queen Anne and sitting just off road of the Admissions field, this historical site offers not only an excellent example of early life in St. Mary’s City, but an unprecedented look at the work, habits, and history of the archeologists who investigated the site during the 20th century. The site itself, which served as a home to Maryland’s legislative council during the 17th century, is notable for being the location of Margaret Brent’s famous petition to give women a voice in the political landscape in colonial America, as well as housing the first legislative body in colonial North America to elect an African American council member, Mathias DeSousa.
The museum itself is of a Smithsonian-level quality, allowing visitors to navigate their way though excellent exhibits that breathe life into the artifacts, personal histories, and excavations, displaying a vivid picture of life at St. Mary’s over the years. Visitors are able to see the perfectly preserved archeological dig site of the St. John’s House, which lies protected inside the actual museum. The site is preserved in such a way that allows visitors a look at the layers of human activity over the centuries, from a Native American cooking site that dates thousands of years before the house was constructed to the pikes and shovels used to recover the foundations of the St. John’s plantation house. Visitors can gaze down into the cellar of the original house and pick out the foundations of the fireplaces that divided the house into two separate quadrants. By seeing the original excavation work of site archeologists, visitors can get a real sense of how conclusions about the site were drawn, thereby providing a better understanding of the site itself.
Bordering the dig site are exhibits that display artifacts recovered directly from the site over the periods of investigation. These exhibits, displaying artifacts only a few feet from where they were last used and then recovered, allow visitors to engage with artifacts in a way that can rarely be experienced elsewhere. A real sense of appreciation is found in viewing an ancient piece of pottery and then seeing where it was discarded or forgotten about on the St. John’s site hundreds of years ago; it provides a level of understanding that could not be reproduced in an exhibit that is far away. Because of this, the St. John’s site is able to foster this level of understanding of its historical significance in a way few historical sites can.
Susan Wilkinson, the director of marketing for Historic St. Mary’s City, stresses the complete uniqueness of the museum’s focus and designs, saying that, “By combining exhibits on historical artifacts, personal histories, and archeological examinations, St. John’s is able to offer an unprecedented depth of interpretation. It is able to look at the human aspect of what happened here.” It is that ability to pull the human aspect out of St. John’s old foundations that make it so special. So, if you have free moment Tuesday though Saturday, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., spend it taking a walk though an engaging and amazing display of our history.