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The motion pictures Jurassic Park and The Lost World proved to be blockbusters, and they certainly drew a lot of attention to the subjects of dinosaurs and prehistory. Happily for Maryland, that interest spilled over from the movie industry into the tourism industry. Although the state doesn't lay claim to many dinosaurs, it is reaping the benefits of hosting travelers who literally "dig" history.
No, you won't find "Annapolis Archaeological Action Figures" in the toy store or "Patuxent River Paleontology" kids' meals at the local fast-food franchise, but if you head for Southern Maryland, you will find a vacation that's both entertaining and educational.
Several sites in Southern Maryland offer paleontology and archaeology exhibits that allow visitors to get up close and personal with the scientists and researchers who are trying to unlock some of the mysteries of the region's past inhabitants.
Start your tour just south of the capital city of Annapolis at Historic London Town and Gardens (839 Londontown Road, Edgewater). Nestled on the shore of the South River, London Town was a once-bustling ferry town that linked Philadelphia and Williamsburg, Virginia. A tobacco inspection station and stop for weary travelers, this town thrived from the late 1600s until the mid-1700s. But in 1747 Maryland's General Assembly moved the inspection site upriver, and London Town would have been more aptly named "Ghost Town" by the onset of the Revolutionary War.
The majority of the town was buried for nearly 200 years; the only structure that remained was a Georgian mansion built in 1760 - or so it would seem. But beneath the surface of the earth, there rests piles of 250-year-old garbage left by the patrons of Rumney's Tavern. This "Tavern Trash" is an archaeological treasure, marking a virtually untouched site that provides significant clues about the lives of Maryland's colonists.
The historic mansion, the eight acres of beautiful gardens and the unbeatable water view have attracted visitors for years. But now it just isn't a trip to London Town without a stop by the archaeology dig, where visitors can watch researchers unearth pig jawbones, oyster shells, broken pottery, hand-blown wine bottles and a variety of other keys to the past.
But this is just the beginning. Continue south along Route 2/4 until you reach Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum (10515 Mackall Road, St. Leonard), an archaeological and environmental preserve located on the Patuxent River in the heart of Calvert County. More than 70 sites here document 9,000 years of Maryland's history.
Park staff and volunteers have scoured the fields and discovered artifacts that revealed a colonial site probably associated with King's Reach, a 17th-century plantation house that was excavated in the 1980s.
Continue south along Route 4 and you'll soon arrive at Calvert Cliffs. These deposits have long been noted as one of the richest sites in the world for the remains of marine life that date to the Miocene Epoch, 10 to 20 million years ago. Erosion causes fossils to fall into the surf, where they are tossed around before being pitched back onto the shore. People have long come to the cliffs in search of these fossils, and much attention has been focused on this remarkable area. It's easy to find ancient shark's teeth and a variety of shells, and some searchers even come upon the remains of dolphins, whales, birds and land mammals that inhabited the earth long ago. The really lucky ones might stumble upon a snail shell belonging to Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae. In 1984, Maryland's State Legislature pronounced it the official state fossil.
Travelers can conduct their own fossil hunt on the beach at Calvert Cliffs State Park (1650 Calvert Cliffs Parkway, Lusby) just off Maryland Route 4, where wooded nature trails lead to the beach. Flag Ponds Nature Park (North Solomons Island Road, Lusby) also provides access to the beaches -- with a little less walking involved. Visitors are free to scour the beach for fossils, but digging in the cliffs is dangerous and strictly prohibited by both state and federal law.
If you don't feel like getting your feet wet to see a fossil or two, stop by the display at the nearby Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant Visitors Center (1650 Calvert Cliffs Parkway, Lusby) or go straight to the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons (14150 Solomons Island Road, Solomons). A few years ago the museum opened a 3,000-square-foot paleontology exhibit entitled "Treasure From the Cliffs: Exploring Marine Fossils." The goals of the exhibit are to inform visitors about the abundance and diversity of the Miocene fossils, and -- through the public's fascination with fossils - to introduce guests to "science in action." Visitors learn how paleontologists collect, prepare, curate, research and reconstruct ancient environments. A paleontologist's lab occupies one portion of the exhibit, but the centerpiece is a replica of a megatooth shark skeleton that hangs from the ceiling. The skeleton was constructed by the staff of the museum's woodworking shop, who usually make boats rather than sharks.
Those boats are on display elsewhere at the museum, so it's important not to overlook the facility's other exhibits. The museum also is home to several aquariums filled with local marine life, a pair of fun-loving river otters, and a beautifully preserved lighthouse. If you're traveling with young children, definitely stop by the Discovery Room, where a sandbox "stocked" with fossils from Calvert Cliffs is sure to delight budding scientists.
The last stop on this tour of Southern Maryland's past is Historic St. Mary's City (Route 5 and Rosecroft Road, St. Mary's City), the original state capital. From 1634 through 1694, St. Mary's City was the center of political and social development in Maryland. When the capital was moved to Annapolis, however, St. Mary's City faded from the spotlight and eventually became tobacco farmland, beneath which lay an archaeological treasure. When development encroached in the 1960s, Maryland's General Assembly opted to preserve this archaeological treasure as a living history museum.
These days, visitors are greeted by costumed interpreters who address them as if they have somehow stumbled back in time. Guests can board a replica of the Maryland Dove, one of the two ships that brought English settlers to the state; watch interpreters go about the daily tasks of a colonial farmer; witness a trial at the old State House; and examine a collection of artifacts unearthed throughout the years.
This collection includes prehistoric objects as well as pieces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries - ceramics, coins, food remains, tools, nails, personal items, the list goes on and on. In fact, the National Park Service has recognized St. Mary's City as "probably the most intact 17th-century English town surviving in our nation, represented entirely by archaeological resources." Archaeologists can be observed at work throughout the historic site's tourism season, and visitors can roll up their sleeves and get to work during special events.
So instead of spending your days viewing dinosaur flicks on video, come see Maryland's own "Lost World." Bring your sense of adventure, comfortable clothes and a hat to keep off the sun, and help unearth the state's amazing past.