ON ANY DAY of the week, and every weekend, Lee Gable holds his nose and plunges into the well. It could have been another well five feet away, but Michael is there. Now three feet down in the hole, Lee is handed a bucket, a hoe and a trowel. Then, before he begins another day's work, he takes a sniff and snorts, Peeew!
Michael, five feet away in an equally smelly well, is better off: Because he's been there two hours longer and has found an unfragmented 19th-century bell and clapper, he's no longer aware of the odor.
The two wells were dug in the 1820s by early residents of Alexandria. To identify them, among the hundreds of similar wells throughout the city, they're named P-P (Michael's) and Q-Q (Lee's).
Lee and Michael, like many other American-history buffs in the area, volunteer their afternoons and weekends as amateur archaeologists for one of the few city-run programs in the country - Alexandria's Archaeological Research Center.
A kind of competition goes on at the site. Because Michael has found a soil-encrusted antique, untouched by time, Lee wants to find something equally valuable. Above him, a team of other students, housewives and oldsters stand at the screens where artifacts freshly recovered from the earth are washed. "You haven't found anything," they yell at Lee, goading him on.
But within minutes, Lee's hoe hits something. "I think it's a candy dish," he says to a coworker. With his trowel, he delicately scoops away the earth around it and sets a mudcoated hurricane lamp free. He holds it up to an envious Michael; it's unscratched. Then he hands it over to the team of screenwashers who, as they clean it off, uncover another world - the 19th century.
"It was probably manufactured in the 1870s. Something like this can tell us about a 19th-century Alexandrian - what type of goods he bought, where he bought them why he might have needed something like this," says Keith, an on-site coordinator for the archaeological center.
The center, located in the Torpedo Factory on Alexandria's waterfront, relies heavily on volunteers like Lee and Michael to research, dig, survey or perform any other activity that enables Alexandria to recover its past. "Everyone is a closet archaeologist," says Pamela Cressey, who has served as City Archacologist for little over a year. She remembers her own youth spent in tracking down dinosaur footprints and flipping through back issues of National Geographic Magazine for L.S. Leakey and Margaret Mead articles.
Cressey came to Alexandria last year from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, where she taught beginning archaeologists their craft. Since then she has worked with nearly 400 volunteers. "You'd be surprised at the types of people interested in early American history," she says. "We've had students, teachers, housewives, senior citizens, professionals . . . you name them."
Despite their diverse backgrounds, they have one thing in common - an itch to dig up and research 18th- and 19th-century America. So far, the amateur archacologists have relieved that itch by digging up the 500 block of St. Asaph at King Streets. They have uncovered more than 17 wells.
"We used old insurance maps from the city archives to figure out where 19th-century residents living on that block sank their wells," Cressey explains.
Most of the wells, she says, were sunk 25 feet down to the water table between 1790 and 1820 for drinking water. The water, however, eventually turned brackish. So the residents, in a burst of creativity, turned them into trash pits - a convement place for disposing of their broken dishes, finished Rheinish wine bottles and meat-picked bones.
The wells, she explains, were also used to dump human waste material into, unsanitary to modern minds, but considered sanitary enough in an 18th- and 19th-century world. Particularly when compared to the Anglo-French custom of throwing such nasty matters out a convenient window.
Through two centuries the waste material breaks down into what Cressey calls "organic matrix." Because of the substance's sensitive nature, it preserves historically revealing objects into the 20th century.
"You can dig into an ancient foundation of a home and come up with nothing." Cressey explains. "As a matter of fact, we spent some time on one at the 500 block last summer. All we ran into were bricks and an occasional wooden toy."
The material in the well can occasionally exude an unpleasant odor, but volunteers say they quickly forget about it - particularly when their trowels uncover rare Steiged glassware or Piercy kaolin shards. They have also found unique 18th- and 19th-century paraphernalia; a flintlock rifie, a carved pipe and cane, a George Washington commemoration bowl glazed during the time of George Washington, and hair restorative bottles. These and other artifacts dug up in the project are on display in the lab.
Lee Gable, who worked on P-P, was an amateur archaeologist for six months. He arrived with 40 other students to rotate among chores. "When I first went to visit friends," he says, "I couldn't get within five feet of them - the smell was so bed. But I quickly got used to it. Besides. I now work in the lab piecing together ceramics."
Working on the ceramics has not only taught him the fundamentals of archaeology, he says, it has shown him how early Alexandrians lived. "You find cheaper were at the top of a well," he says. "Toward the bottom of the well, you find handpainted, imported china."
Cressey believes that the expensive wares at the bottom may show that early Alexandrians were more wealthy than those who later discarded home-made china near the top of the well. "The difference may show us that there was an economic and social rise, then decline," she says.
But whatever it shows, and Cressey plans to begin publishing soon, her ambition is no less than to dig up all of historic Alexandria. "We look upon the city as one large excavation site. You can't just excavate a few blocks and then talk about trends and forces influencing 18th- and 19th-century settlers."
So over the next few months, Cressey and her volunteers plan to not just dig and reconstruct the thousands of artifacts now housed at their Torpedo Factory labs, but to conduct a survey - knocking on historic doors in Old Town to see if the residents will let the archaeologists take soil samples.
"We need to know where the historic material is," she says. "That way, if a home is threatened by the destruction ball, we know what's there and can go in and recover it."
"We consider ourselves a research center - because that's precisely what we are - a center for archaeological activity," Cressey says of the city's unique program. "We teach classes here, open the lab, provide a chance for those who need to do fieldwork. On the basis of what we discover, we'll see how the city grew and changed."