Underground Finds Tell of Washington's Lost History
The artifacts include such objects as old medicine bottles that dispensed cocaine to 19th-century city dwellers and prehistoric pottery fragments. But they are not always easily accessible. Many artifacts are kept in the D.C. Archives, while others are on display at the City Museum, said Nancy Kassner, the archaeologist with the District's Historic Preservation Office. Kassner keeps some in the Historic Preservation Office, including six cartons that she calls Howard Road, which contain items unearthed during an excavation beneath the present-day Anacostia Metro station and which now sit beneath a cubicle desk. About 10 other boxes are in Kassner's basement.
Soon, Kassner hopes, that will change. She is working with the City Museum to build an archaeology lab, where the museum can showcase Washington artifacts and incorporate archaeology into educational programs as a hands-on way to teach history and science
Kassner hopes to consolidate the artifacts so researchers and the public can easily view and use them.
Beyond that, archaeologists hope the archaeology lab will help Washingtonians learn about the prehistoric life of the city and offer a counterpoint to the image of archaeologists as Indiana Jones figures exploring remote deserts in exotic lands.
Washingtonians have been unearthing artifacts for years, since at least the days of William Henry Holmes, a 19th-century curator of the U.S. National Museum -- now the Museum of Natural History -- whose explorations along the Potomac River earned him a reputation as the father of archaeology in Washington.
But many artifacts have been uncovered in the past few decades, particularly since the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, which requires all federally funded projects to account for any resources they would affect. This can lead contractors to hire archaeologists, who use public records, historical maps and educated guesswork to determine what might exist beneath a site and whether a dig might retrieve it.
"The interesting thing about an urban environment is that you never know" what you will find, Kassner said. "Years ago, the thinking was, 'Urban area? No, you're not going to find anything.' "
But searchers have done just that -- on projects including National Park Service excavations of Rock Creek Park and middle school digs of the Sidwell Friends School's back yard.
Like Washington itself, the District's archaeological projects can be separated into the famous and the little known.
Some, such as an excavation beneath Federal Triangle that uncovered portions of the Civil War-era "Hooker's District," unearth artifacts of the everyday lives of non-famous people, supplementing historians' knowledge of the city from more than a century ago. Named for Joseph Hooker, the Civil War general, the district was home to hundreds of "bawdy houses" in the 1860s before they were replaced with more formally run brothels by the 1890s.
Another project, completed before the MCI Center was built, turned up household trash, wells and building foundations of a heavily populated 19th-century residential area. Researchers used those discoveries to investigate historic water supply and health and sanitation conditions.
Archaeologists excavating the site where the new Convention Center was built found items from the homes of Smith Harley and George Garrison, two free black men whose families lived on Eighth Street NW in the decades before the Civil War. The items from Harley's and Garrison's houses were roughly equivalent to those from houses of their white neighbors, and they remain among the only excavated items from the homes of free blacks before the war.
Other projects, such as the Executive Stable excavation, fit a different purpose: exploring sites associated with famous figures.
"It's not so much knowledge-driven; it's not so much done because you have questions about the past that you want to answer," Bedell said. "It's done because people are interested in these buildings or buildings associated with these people."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company