Underground Finds Tell of Washington's Lost History
Even so, the Executive Stable project did offer a glimpse into people and jobs usually ignored by history. Although historians knew the stables existed -- photographs of it survive -- references to the stables, or to the logistics behind the presidential carriage fleet, are rare in written accounts.
Besides the stable foundation, Bedell's team uncovered foundations from temporary office buildings that were erected on the Mall during World War II, another part of the government's day-to-day life that has been almost lost to history, he said.
"When we go down to the Mall and we look at this lovely park area, the monuments, it hasn't always been this way," Bedell said. "There's a lot of work in Washington to try to keep the government going, and they try to keep it hidden."
Sites like the stable are often buried under layers of fill because the ground in the city is higher than it once was, Bedell said. The area at 17th and E is about five feet higher than it was in 1871, Bedell said, because displaced soil from underground construction projects and years of landscaping have raised the ground level.
The collection of artifacts at the Historic Preservation Office includes many items Kassner has rescued after other people left them at digs. Anything to keep them from "disappearing," she said.
She retrieved a plank of wood from a site near the Washington Navy Yard that was recently excavated in anticipation of the construction of a Department of Transportation building.
There, archaeologists found portions of the wooden walls of the Washington Canal, as well as evidence that it had been repaired during its life span. That evidence confirmed that the city had not heeded the advice of Benjamin Latrobe, an architect of the Capitol, who in the early 19th century urged officials to use the highest-quality materials to build the canal so they could avoid repairs.
Nearby, another team recently found evidence of a predecessor to the current Eastern Market, which in about 1804 existed closer to the water, two blocks north of the Navy Yard.
Using soil analysis, archaeologists determined what had been sold in particular stalls, identifying some occupants as meat vendors and some as fish vendors. The team uncovered one side of the U-shaped market and stones and bricks from another portion, and suggested it might have been an open market with arched doorways, Kassner said.
Other finds predate the city's recorded history.
Along the Rock Creek Parkway, at a site called Ramp 3, archaeologists found cremated remains and evidence of a ritual burial, with items radiocarbon-dated to between A.D. 640 and 790. A 16-inch antler comb and shark teeth were found near the body.
An excavation below Barney Circle uncovered stone tools, deer blood and corn fibers, evidence of a prehistoric Indian village.
National Park Service archaeologists are in the early stages of a study in Rock Creek Park that has the potential to "completely turn around what prehistorians thought we knew about Washington circa 700 A.D.," said Potter, the Park Service archaeologist.
Potter said he is often surprised by how little Washingtonians know about the history of their city, particularly when it comes to its prehistoric past.
"It's as though they still believe the history of Washington began with the L'Enfant Plan," he said.
Kassner said she hopes the archaeology lab at the City Museum will help make the city's history more widely known and will allow students to become acquainted with archaeology as a hands-on way to explore and as a scientific process that must be cultivated carefully.
One of the lessons she hopes to impart is that the history of nearly anything may lie just below its surface, a lesson Dave Wood and his fifth-grade science students learned several years ago.
A middle school science teacher at Sidwell Friends School, Wood had scheduled a class trip to an archaeological dig in Virginia. When the trip was rained out, he enlisted the help of local archaeologists, who helped him lead class digs outside Sidwell's administration building, Zartman House. The house, built in 1816, became a magnet for his students' enthusiasm.
"You get these really squirrelly kids, and you couldn't get them out of there," Wood said. "They were having so much fun finding stuff."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company