When I was a girl, legend had it that in the early 18th century, the pirate Blackbeard sailed up the Magothy River, attacked colonists living along Black Hole Creek, and in the midst of the fighting, rowed to shore with his first mate, carried a treasure chest 15 minutes inland, and buried it.
…In the pasture behind my house? There were signs of previous landholders and visitors at Barnstead—arrowheads, mounds of oyster shells, and once, a tiny glowing orb in the night–but where to dig for Blackbeard’s treasure was a mystery. At six, I tried to calculate how far a person could walk in 15 minutes. Mom said one mile. When I was seven, it occurred to me I’d have to adjust the distance to how far a person could walk carrying a load of rubies and gold coins.
By the time I was eight, my sister and I were making fake treasure maps in the hope of duping the neighbor kids into searching.
Fire was our go-to method for imitating “old.” Maybe it was the opening credits of the TV show Bonanza, where flames sear a hole in a map of the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights ride through it on horseback. For the record, Mom was going to marry the handsome patriarch, Ben Cartwright. Sharon, my oldest sister, would get the oldest Cartwright brother, the taciturn Adam. Andee, as prettiest sister, would get Little Joe, also prettiest.
That left me with the middle brother.
We don’t have to talk about this anymore.
All of this is to say that we would draw our fake map, crumple the paper, burn the edges, then hide and fake-find it for the neighbor kids to marvel at. X always marked the spot.
This weekend, however, I went on another kind of treasure hunt. I joined a team of volunteers at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center for an excavation project located on the organization’s 2650-acre property on the Rhode River. We were digging at Java Ruins, a mansion built on the property during the Golden Age of Maryland planters. Previous research indicated an additional structure might have stood there centuries ago, and we hoped to unearth evidence. If this excavation produced nothing, that was okay. We’d simply try again.
As I approached the guard gate, I said a quick prayer for those who might have used, made, or broken whatever we might find—the request being that we somehow honor these people by finding evidence of their previous presence in the world. I offered a wish for the well-being of their spirits as well, aware that this plantation was built and maintained with slave labor. The romance of the past is always mitigated by the evidence that humanity is as unevolved today as it was before language, which is particularly disheartening when, in exchange for Eden, we were asked nothing more than to love one another.
Jim, the principal investigator, was a very handsome man with a white beard and ponytail in a denim-blue ballcap. The morning team had dug out a site about 12 inches deep and 10-foot square, a red string delineating the perimeter. My first task was cleaning up the sides with a flat shovel. Three standing tables with sieves on rollers surrounded the hole. We lifted out loose dirt, dumped it in buckets, and then poured the contents onto the sieve screens to be shaken, much like sifting flour. We then smoothed out the remaining clumps with our gloved hands, searching for any mysterious objects.
I immediately found a shell about which I was absurdly excited. Jim! Stop the presses! This is huge! I found an oyster!
They are white, easy to spot in the black soil, “low hanging fruit,” as one of my colleagues dryly observed with a smile. An hour later, Jim noted that Number One Digger had become pretty jaded, as I was now tossing shells in the discard pile as real treasure emerged.
I unearthed a piece of pottery from 1780, probably part of a dinner plate, with a green edge and fluting. We found pieces of Delft China, creamware, a beautiful snow-white button, and a doll’s leg. All of which we tossed into buckets to be washed and identified later in the lab.
My fellow volunteers were as much of a discovery as those we were exposing with our hands. As conversation bubbled around me, we shared pieces of our lives with each other as we worked.
A winsome satellite architect with salt-and-pepper hair had brought his 10-year-old son, and for the record, the kid dug more than any of us. I wanted to get to know better, an engaging woman about my age. We didn’t exchange names until I was leaving. Hers was long and biblical, and now I can’t remember it.
Rachel, who runs the volunteer program, is an appealing ‘bird nerd’ who shared tips on finding Baltimore Orioles. (Look high!) A father had brought along his two dark-eyed, high-school-age daughters. The sisters and I smoothed the wet soil over the screen, uncertain as to what was too small to save. Our conclusion? Nothing.
A lovely young mother with creamy skin and large glasses had brought her two little girls—about 8 and 10. The older sister had dyed her hair an intense, electric blue like she was wearing the sky on a cloudless day. I would never have let my daughters do this. I was charmed by the maturity of this woman’s mother-love and a bit wistful. I wish I could take the person I am now back in time to pay more attention to what matters.
Less work, more play. Less judgment, more acceptance.
Less black-and-white, more blue.
At home, I am still excited about what we found and trying to wrap my brain around the fact that I had hiked over that patch of land without a clue that a little girl, centuries gone, played with her doll there. Just as I may have played Swinging Statues with Blackbeard’s treasure just feet beneath the dry grass of my front yard or on the slope down to the river. Maybe it’s still there. Or never was.
We made treasure maps for something we would never find because finding doesn’t matter.
The joy is in the search. The willingness to dig deeper, look longer, love better, and try again.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.