Lauren Schiszik had a hunch that buried beneath the playing fields, paths, and green space of Solo Gibbs Park were intact remains of houses and fragments of the lives of people who lived here as far back as the Civil War. The park in the historic Black neighborhood of Sharp-Leadenhall sits on land once filled with homes and shops razed in the 1970s to make way for I-395.
When Schiszik heard from Baltimore City Recreation & Parks that major renovations were being planned for Solo Gibbs Park – changes that would involve excavations down into that buried past – she recommended, in her role as archaeologist with the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), that Rec & Parks first conduct a careful archaeological investigation of the park.
“Knowing how the houses here had likely been demolished, I was pretty certain there was a likelihood of archaeological resources in this park,” Schiszik said in a recent interview. “Since the planned park renovations would involve excavations that could potentially destroy archaeological resources, lets be good stewards and see what stories we can learn from those resources.”
Rec & Parks agreed, and in October crews from Baltimore-based RK&K Civil Engineering arrived at Solo Gibbs and dug 16 carefully targeted trenches around the park to see what they could find. Most of the trenches were just 3 to 4 feet deep to get through the layer of rubble from the original demolition.
“We found about 12 archaeological features,” said RK&K project manager Karen Hutchins-Keim. “Building remains or privy remains. Most were brick walls and foundations. We also found a basement floor.”
But the most interesting find to Hutchins-Keim was a feature that did not jibe with the historical city street maps they used to guide their search. “This is preliminary, but we believe we found a pit feature, likely a privy, that predates most of the houses that were built on the block. It’s probably from the antebellum period, maybe the 1830s. This specific area wasn’t developed until the 1850s with the modern streetscapes.”
The purpose of the October digs was to identify areas of archaeological interest, not to study them in detail, according to Hutchins-Keim. After collecting measurements and photos of the features and some artifacts from the rubble, the trenches were all backfilled to keep the archaeological resources intact for possible future study. RK&K planned to submit a technical report to the city on their findings in December.
Findings and artifacts from the Solo Gibbs Park dig will eventually be used to create public interpretation materials and possibly displays, said Rec & Parks design planner Kate Brower. “From the start of the park renovation project, the Sharp-Leadenhall community has been very interested in including interpretation as part of the park. That could take the form of signage or programming in the park.”
Rec & Parks plans to hold a public meeting in the spring to update the community on the archaeological findings, said Brower. – Steve Cole
This article was originally published December 9 in Issue #10 of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post newspaper.