- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

When 8-year-old Nat Enelow pulled open the door of a tiny closet on the third floor of his family’s newly purchased Victorian-style farmhouse in Chevy Chase, he wasn’t expecting to find anything. He was pleasantly surprised when he found a forgotten treasure.

“It was an old mini-foosball game,” says his mother, Amy Kossoff, who fell in love with the old moldings and high ceilings of the 1880s vintage home. “We guess it came from the family who lived here before us.”

While a 30-year-old foosball game left in a closet might not be a dramatic archaeological discovery, homeowners in the Greater Washington area are likely to uncover something even older when they remodel, add on or turn over a backyard garden.

“Renovators of older homes frequently find things (like newspapers, children’s toys and other small items) in the walls,” says Joseph Himali, president of the Board of Directors of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors and principal broker at Best Address Real Estate in Georgetown.

Homeowners aren’t always sure what to do with their discoveries. Even a small find can raise a lot of questions. The answers will depend on a number of factors, including where the item was found, how it was found and, of course, what it is.

“We’ve got everything from [items dating to] prehistoric times to things people dropped at the inauguration,” says Ruth Trocolli, the city archaeologist for the District in the Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Office.

If an artifact is found on your property, you don’t have to worry about stopping construction or calling in an outside agency.

“Your property is your castle. If you find something, it belongs to you,” says Ms. Trocolli. “Of course, we encourage people to report what they find.”

Different parts of the city have the potential for different kinds of finds, Ms. Trocolli notes. The Palisades area has a lot of prehistoric resources, while Rock Creek Park contains evidence of early farms and farmsteads. Downtown construction sites, which often conduct their own archaeological surveys prior to building, often reveal clues about early businesses and residential neighborhoods long forgotten.

Artifacts on city, state or federal land are the property of those governments, so it’s not a good idea to start digging in your local green space.

Of course, there’s a different protocol should you find human remains.

“Those get turned over to the medical examiner,” says Ms. Trocolli.

Any find can provide a glimpse of how people used to live.

“It’s a way to give depth to history,” says Mark Leone, professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland. Since 1981, he has directed the Archaeology in Annapolis project, which is a partnership between the Historic Annapolis Foundation and the University of Maryland to promote a better understanding of the city’s diverse past.

A recent find in Annapolis was a football-sized clay bundle that was found about 1,000 feet from the Annapolis Statehouse. It was filled with pieces of metal and other items, which seem to be West African in origin and date to about 1700. The bundle is on display at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.

When some homeowners take out a wall or remodel a basement, they find history in a bottle.

According to Joanna Church, collections manager at the Montgomery County Historical Society, area residents have found everything from dairy bottles to medicine bottles, and even a few beer bottles, buried in their basements or hidden between the walls.

“Bottle collectors are hard core,” says Ms. Church, who occasionally fields questions from homeowners curious about a basement or backyard find. “And the Internet makes it easier to find out what you have.”

Indiana University provides online tips about how to identify and date old bottles (www. indiana.edu/~e472/cdf/ suggest/old/Bottles.html). Ms. Church notes that some venerable corporations even offer information on their Web sites about how to identify historical items. For example, Coca-Cola has its own historian/archivist who posts a blog about the company’s history and collectibles.

Other common finds include pieces of plates, pottery and other trash.

Before you start digging for buried treasure, consider this:

“Archaeology is an inherently destructive activity,” says Ms. Trocolli. “Once you dig, you can never put things back in the same way.”

Artifacts can only be understood through studying the context in which they exist, according to Mr. Leone.

“That’s the ground,” he says. “It’s impossible to date, understand the function and understand the buildings they are in without this larger context.”

What should you do if you find something? Start by taking a photograph of the artifact in the spot where you found it. That’s especially important if you are in the middle of a remodeling or building project and have to remove the artifact in order to continue. Record where you found it and note what was around it. And look closely. If it is a piece of glass, pottery or ceramic, you may see a maker’s mark or some other identifier. Call your local historical society or state archaeologist’s office to find an expert who may be able to help.

Many homeowners end up displaying their unique pieces of history in a cabinet or shadowbox, says Mr. Himali, who found his own treasure in his Cleveland Park home. He found a signed baseball and team picture. It turns out that a previous owner of the home had played on the National Bureau of Standards in-house baseball team. Such pieces can be interest points for a historically minded buyer, Mr. Himali notes.

“Most people think of themselves as stewards of these artifacts,” says Mr. Himali, who plans to pass his own found pieces to the next owner of his home. “A lot of people who are interested in the house because of its age love the fact that something has been found. Of course, if you can find the original blueprints, that’s even better.”

Then again, there are those who see the entire home as a historic artifact.

“We believe that history should be preserved and repaired, but not erased,” says Tom Wooten, owner of Home Sweet Home Improvements, a Fauquier County-based business that specializes in remodeling historic houses.

For Mr. Wooten, that means honoring what exists and taking pains to conserve what can be some very valuable “finds,” like hand-hewn beams or century-old French scenic wallpaper that’s now either impossible to get or extremely expensive to replace.

“People love that sort of stuff,” he says. “It’s part of the reason they bought their [historic] homes in the first place.”

One client even had Mr. Wooten place a “picture frame” on part of an old wall that reveals the horse and hog hair plaster.

Even less valuable discoveries can be interesting. In his 18 years of business, Mr. Wooten and his crew have come across all kinds of items, such as old invoices, pottery pieces and animal bones.

“Old detached kitchens used to burn down quite frequently,” he says. “Or they’d be left to fall apart. We find a lot of things where outbuildings once were.”

“It’s really a privilege to work on these places and restore some of this history,” says Mr. Wooten. “You can make one or fake one, but if you destroy a piece of history, you can never get it back.”

And that mini-foosball game? Nine years after his discovery, Nat is considerably taller than he was when he first opened that small closet door on the third floor. The game is still there, right where the old family left it. Somehow, it didn’t seem right to take it out.

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