Smithsonian Dig Unearths Quirky Traces of History

At the site of the Smithsonian Institution's future African American History and Culture Museum on the Mall, above, archeologists are finishing their search for buried history. Jason Shellhamer, left, holds a broken lamp base from the 1800s.
At the site of the Smithsonian Institution's future African American History and Culture Museum on the Mall, above, archeologists are finishing their search for buried history. Jason Shellhamer, left, holds a broken lamp base from the 1800s. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

The five-acre site once bordered a tidal creek and an urban canal that ran by the Capitol.

It served as stockyard during the Civil War, stood in the shadow of the rising Washington Monument, and thousands of years ago was a riverside campground for Native Americans.

Now, as the site of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, it is precious ground, and a team of archeologists combed it this month for more clues to its history.

The object was to see whether the construction of the museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015, would disturb crucial artifacts.

The answer was no, officials said.

"There was nothing extraordinary found," said Curtis M. Davis, the museum project manager. But the three-week dig, which ended Aug. 17, did unearth fragments from forgotten chapters of Washington.

The museum site is bounded by Constitution Avenue, Madison Drive and 15th and 14th streets, and sits between the monument and the National Museum of American History. It has been owned by the federal government since 1791, although its administration was transferred to the Smithsonian in June.

Chief archaeologist Charles LeeDecker, an assistant director in the Washington office of the environmental and engineering firm the Louis Berger Group Inc., said the north side of the tract, along Constitution, was originally in the bed of Tiber Creek, which ran through about half of downtown Washington before emptying into the Potomac River as a broad estuary.

LeeDecker said previous excavations have unearthed arrowheads indicating that Native Americans gathered at the spot around 7,000 years ago.

In Colonial times, the site was part of a plantation belonging to Notley Young, one of the largest landholders in the area, who owned 265 slaves.

Starting about 1820, Tiber Creek was utilized to create the Washington City Canal, the brainchild of Pierre L'Enfant, the designer of Washington, LeeDecker said. The canal ran past the Capitol and linked the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. "L'Enfant wanted that because, for the big public buildings like the Capitol, you needed a lot of building material, and canal boats were the cheapest way to move stone," he said.

During the Civil War, the area became known as the Washington National Cattle Yard or the Cattle Meadow, and served as a livestock depot and slaughterhouse.

In the 1870s, the then-fetid canal and creek were covered over as a health nuisance, and the area was filled and landscaped for the completion of the Washington Monument in 1884. Later, there were tennis courts on the site.

"There have been a lot different activities here," LeeDecker said. "There was a building along the canal there. We don't know whether it was a tollbooth or what. We know there were workmen's barracks. We're looking for remains of those kind of things, that have disappeared from the landscape that might tell us an interesting story."

The five-person team dug 15 trenches and square holes.

Although LeeDecker also said the dig found nothing that would affect the museum project, it did unearth artifacts and clues to an interesting story. "We're finding these deposits of brick rubble and household refuse: ceramics, butchered bone, bottles, oyster shells," he said.

But there were no households on the spot. LeeDecker said research showed that during the landscaping for the monument, homeowners were invited to dump their trash to provide fill, and may have been paid for it.

"That's how a lot of this area got filled up," he said. "Domestic trash."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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