- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Even years after he found what first appeared to be a piece of roof slate, Alan Darby can hardly contain his glee.

“To me, picking up something that nobody has touched for a couple of thousand years is just incredible,” says the longtime Palisades resident, grasping the carefully worked blade in his hand. “And to think I almost kicked it away.”

Traces of the past remain at some pretty unlikely places throughout Greater Washington. Take a stroll on the bluffs overlooking the Potomac and you may find evidence of people who lived here thousands of years ago. Uncover an old parking lot in Alexandria and you may find pieces of a bakery that once served Queen Victoria. Try to get rid of a pesky daffodil and your trowel may well strike something far older.

Now, a new exhibit at Decatur House on Lafayette Square gives pride of place to similar finds from more than 20 National Trust for Historic Preservation properties throughout the country, including Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia, a Rockefeller estate in New York, and the Lincoln Cottage here in Washington.

If you want to dig a little deeper yourself, programs and exhibits throughout the area can tell you how to start, can set you up as an ongoing volunteer, or can help you identify your own finds.

Who knows? You might just uncover a mystery or two.

• • •

At the new Decatur House exhibition, “Digging Deeper: Archaeological Discoveries Across the National Trust,” the emphasis is on ordinary items, functional objects like the restored chamber pot on loan from the Lower East Side tenement Museum in New York. But even a pottery shard or an old teacup can have a story to tell.

An old light bulb gleams dully from behind its protective glass. You can still glimpse the fancy curl on its top, like a fillip of icing on an old-fashioned cake. There is a survival story here, because this particular bulb, from Brucemore, an estate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, survived burial and excavation entirely intact, practically as if it had just come from the factory floor.

Not all the objects in the exhibition have been as lucky. In fact, many were recovered from rubbish heaps. It takes a team of experts to piece it all together.

“There’s a confluence of research, physical objects, documents and oral history,” says Katherine Malone-France, director of Collections and Programs at Decatur House. “Used all together, they can paint a clearer picture of how people lived.”

Meanwhile, the staff at Decatur House is digging deeper into the site’s past. In the process, they’ve uncovered more than a few things about the 1818 house, once the trophy home of naval hero Stephen Decatur and, later, Henry Clay and John Gadsby, formerly of Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria and owner of the National Hotel at Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

“It’s an exciting time to work at Decatur House because we are in the midst of in-depth archaeological excavations,” Mrs. Malone-France says. “There’s such a sense of discovery here.”

A steeply curving staircase winds its way to the top floor, its narrow treads revealing the years of trudging. But the real surprise comes up top, where a recently removed panel reveals … a skylight.

Ironically, the skylight was still in evidence just 20 years ago, when it was photographed by a National Geographic photographer. But the staff changed so many times since that no one remembered there had ever been a skylight there.

Small wonder that it’s difficult to piece together sections of the more distant past.

Recent excavations also have revealed traces of a painted pattern around the wooden floor of the entry hall and kitchen, and indications of bricked-up windows on an upper floor.

Still extant at Decatur House is the 1839 addition, built during the residence of John Gadsby, which provided living quarters and other spaces for enslaved and hired people. Long converted to other uses, the area was only recently connected to its original purpose, thanks to investigative and architectural work by Decatur House staff.

The fact that the traces remained at all was something of a boon, since these areas were often demolished in the years after slavery.

“The architecture of urban enslavement is one of the first things to go,” Mrs. Malone-France says.

Archaeological work done in what was thought to be Stephen Decatur’s office has revealed what is now thought to be a kitchen. It was the size of the fireplace’s firebox — much larger than any other in the house — that tipped off the researchers. And then they found that fully one-third of the floor was actually made of brick.

It seemed clear that the door between this room and the main hallway was not original to the space: As a kitchen, the room would have been closed off. Nineteenth-century Washingtonians would have wanted to keep their servants out of sight, Mrs. Malone-France says.

• • •

While members of the public can’t get in on the action at Decatur House — that work is for the professionals — ordinary folks can volunteer at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which has been including the public in various activities, from excavation to lab work, since its inception in 1979.

“History is a resource like water, plants and animals,” says Pamela Cressey, the Alexandria City archaeologist and the museum’s director. “It’s not just broken junk. In Alexandria, archaeology is up close and personal.”

Today the museum functions as a working laboratory but can easily be reconfigured for seminars, public programs and exhibits. Volunteers are trained to work on digs throughout the year, and the general public is invited to a hands-on event in early June.

Past programs have included excavation of the site of a longtime parking lot that was removed before new construction would take place. Revealed were the remains of a popular mid-19th century bakery that had once provided crackers to Queen Victoria.

“The public is often included when things are excavated,” Mrs. Cressey says, “because we hope that the public will want to take it one step further and have ownership of their own history.”

These days, the ongoing dig is at Shuter’s Hill, a high piece of land overlooking Old Town that is now part of the grounds of the George Washington Masonic Memorial. Much material has been taken from the surface of the site, including prehistoric spear points, ceramic shards and pieces of the area’s Civil War past.

On-site volunteers help archaeologists to carefully bag and categorize the remains, noting level, soil and date so that later record keepers can locate the material within the appropriate context. Back at the museum, volunteers painstakingly rinse the materials in the hopes that the archaeologist on duty can identify what they are.

At the site, archaeologists and volunteers uncovered the stone foundations of a pre-1830 laundry, along with buttons, thimbles, ceramics and oyster shells.

Taken together, the cache provides an important glimpse of what life was like in the laundry before the age of washing machines and detergents. During the 19th century, washerwomen, most likely black, would have had to lug in 50 gallons of water, weighing 400 pounds, to clean just one load of laundry. They’d spend their days stirring, boiling and beating clothes clean. And the presence of oyster shells and other items lead experts to conclude that they probably lived on the site.

Of course, mysteries remain. Even the origin of the place name itself is uncertain: Did people come there to shoot, or was there someone named Shuter who once owned a place or occupied the land?

• • •

Mysteries abound all over the area. In Chevy Chase last month, according to an Associated Press report, a work crew excavating a resident’s back yard turned up a skull that archaeologists from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Office of History & Archaeology estimate is at least 100 years old. But why it got there and whose it was — whether man, woman, European or American Indian — remains a puzzle.

Even more mysteries can be unearthed when amateur archaeologists are on their own. Mr. Darby, a roofer by day, began finding projectile points and other items near and in the streams and creek beds of his Palisades neighborhood and nearby Montgomery County.

“Once you start picking things up your eye goes right to things,” he says. “I’ve found a lot of items when I was just out walking.”

Sites with prehistoric artifacts that have been excavated over the years include the Whitehurst Freeway, the Anacostia Metro Station and Barney Circle.

“These are some pretty incredible sites,” says Nancy Kassner, archaeologist for the District of Columbia. “There were people living here 8,000 years ago.”

Mr. Darby has become something of an authority on the habits of some of these early peoples, thanks in part to his membership in the Western Maryland Archaeological Society, which hosts a series of programs and digs throughout the year.

“If you want to get started, I’d suggest you join,” says Mr. Darby. “It’s a lot of fun, and they’ll take you through the process so you can do it properly. You don’t want to be taking things away from park land or federal land.”

• • •

For more recent information, he relies on the work of Alice Fales Stewart, a retired schoolteacher who has written a new history of the neighborhood, “The Palisades of Washington, D.C.”

Mrs. Stewart conducted oral history interviews with longtime residents, plowed through maps and other documents at the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Library, and made use of earlier histories of the area.

“I think that people here today want to feel an attachment and affinity with people who lived before and were close to the land,” Mrs. Stewart says. “I’ve seen people who have kept artifacts in shoe boxes for decades.”

Local histories like Mrs. Stewart’s are as important for armchair archaeologists as they are for local historians, because they help provide the kind of historical context necessary to piece together the past.

Recently, the Palisades Citizens Association hosted a meeting that brought together Mrs. Stewart, neighborhood residents and Mrs. Kassner to try to identify some finds. Mrs. Kassner also brought along Stephen R. Potter, an archaeologist with the National Park Service and author of several works regarding early Indians of the region.

But even their combined efforts couldn’t solve everyone’s mysteries. In fact, they managed to create a few more, like the one on Palisades resident Carol Knouse’s hands.

For years, Ms. Knouse had held a collection of Indian artifacts, including a five-pound axe head, which she and her parents had uncovered while gardening around their 1954 rambler. More recently, her longtime neighbors bequeathed their own collection to her when they moved out of the house next door. (The two houses were originally part of the same property.)

“As a child I felt that this must have been a good place for Indians to gather,” says Ms. Knouse, who moved into the house when she was 11. “The ground is so high, they could see all comers.”

So here’s her mystery: When she took her pieces to the citizens’ association meeting, Mr. Potter told her that it was very unlikely that all of the pieces would have come from the same site.

“They dated from about 3500 B.C. to A.D.,” Ms. Knouse says. “And they were made from stone native to different places, Ohio and New York.”

So where did the artifacts come from? And how did they all end up on Ms. Knouse’s property?

“Maybe it was some boy’s collection many years ago and he buried it,” she says. “And I can’t swear that my neighbors didn’t give me something from a collection they had when they lived back in Ohio.”

Right now, the jury is still out. Perhaps there was an earlier house on the property with a child who might have wanted to bury his treasures. That means a few more hours in Washingtoniana.

Because that’s the thing about archaeology: Once you start to uncover a few things, you’ll nearly always find yourself having to dig a little deeper.

Where to find help with digs

Ready to dig up your own back yard? Prep yourself by exploring what others have found before you — and volunteer to get a taste of what awaits. Here’s a brief guide to locally available resources.

Museums and books

• The Stephen Decatur House: 1610 H St. NW. “Digging Deeper: Archaeological Discoveries Across the National Trust,” illustrates the practice of historical archaeology as it presents artifacts found at the 28 historic sites maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission by donation. 202/842/0920 or www.decaturhouse.org.

• The Alexandria Archaeology Museum: At the Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., No. 327, Alexandria. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays and major holidays. Ruth Reeder, volunteer coordinator. Admission free. 703/838-4399 or oha.alexandriava.gov/archaeology.

• “The Palisades of Washington, DC”: by Alice Fales Stewart. Arcadia Publishing, 2005, $19.99. Part of the “Images of America” series, this history is available from area bookstores and Amazon.

Regional and local government offices

• D.C. Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office: 801 N. Capitol St. NE, Suite 3000. Nancy Kassner, archaeologist. Call 202/442-8843 or see planning.dc.gov and click on “Historic Preservation.”

• Fairfax County Park Authority, Cultural Resources: 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church. Research lab, artifact study and type collections; five full-time staff archaeologists. Volunteer and internship opportunities; training in fieldwork, laboratory techniques and report writing. Bob Wharton, volunteer coordinator. 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Lab open 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays. Call in advance 703/534-3881 or see fairfaxcounty.gov/parks and click on “Cultural Resources” at bottom left.

• Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Historic Preservation and Archaeology Office: Needwood Mansion, 6700 Needwood Road, Derwood. Identifies, manages and interprets archaeological sites on parkland and offers the public the chance to help preserve them. 301/840-5848 or mc-mncppc.org/historic/archaeology/index.shtm.

• National Park Service, National Capital Regional Archaeology Program: 1100 Ohio Drive SW. The NCRAP administers 11 major parks in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District. Volunteers accepted for projects including archaeological excavation and processing artifacts. Call Marian Creveling, director of the archaeology lab, at 301/341-0709 or Stephen Potter at 202/619-7280. See nps.gov/rap.

State and national archaeological organizations

• Archeological Society of Maryland: A statewide organization of lay and professional archaeologists devoted to the study and conservation of Maryland archaeology. The society sponsors an annual workshop in archaeology in March, the annual Tyler Bastian Field Session in late spring and Maryland Archeology Month in April. Additional volunteer field and lab opportunities are available through local chapters. The Mid-Potomac chapter meets monthly, usually at the Needwood Mansion in Derwood. For information on the annual field session call Charles L. Hall 410/514-7665 or Carol Ebright 410/545-2879 or see marylandarcheology.org.

• Archeological Society of Virginia: Professional and amateur archaeologists who aim to promote the study of archaeology and anthropology in Virginia, to conserve its sites and to encourage their scientific study. Northern Virginia Chapter meets at the James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church, at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month. Call 703/244-6275 or see asv-archeology.org.

• Society for American Archaeology: 900 2nd St. NE, No. 12. 202/789-8200 or saa.org.

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