Archeologists find artifacts at Fairfax County site that was a bustling port

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By Holly Hobbs
Fairfax County Times
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 12:32 AM

Centreville resident Karen Schweikart digs history.

Bent over a shallow pit on a recent Saturday morning, Schweikart, with a garden trowel and metal dust pan, performed the slow and meticulous task of archeology. She was working to exhume what remains of a colonial era building that might help historians learn more about the port town of Colchester.

"It's fun to be out here with people who love history as much as we do," said Schweikart, one of several volunteers from Northern Virginia who visit the site on the Occoquan River in Fairfax County.

Colchester once was a bustling port to which tobacco planters from southern plantations would bring their crop for export to England. Later, wheat and other commodities were shipped from the port.

Capt. John Smith, an explorer who is probably best known for helping establish the Jamestown settlement, also is believed to have visited the site in 1608 when he explored the Occoquan River, encountering several Native American tribes, according to historians leading work at Colchester.

"This would have been one of the hubs" for tobacco shipment, said Christopher Sperling, a county archeologist who is historic field director for the site. "Tobacco was the lifeblood of the Virginia colony. We're finding aspects of what was used early on in the colonial port town."

The site is owned and operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority. The purchase of the 135-acre lot in April 2007 for $9.52 million was financed by bond money, agency spokesman Matthew Kaiser said.

The property, which includes a house used as a residence for archeologists, was purchased from developers and included the largest parcels of undeveloped land remaining in private ownership in the Mount Vernon District, according to Park Authority officials.

Archeologists are evaluating the site for potential inclusion in the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

The Park Authority budgeted $480,000 for the study of the Colchester site. Once the dig and study of Colchester is complete, public forums and plans for the future of the park will begin, said Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pederson, adding that no plans to develop the site exist.

"The county had the foresight to realize [that] if this area was allowed to be developed, we could lose this history," Sperling said.

The key difference between this site and others he has worked on, he added, is that "because it's not threatened [by pending development], I can take my time and do the best work I can."


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