Because of a typographical error, an incorrect telephone number was listed in yesterday's Virginia Weekly for the Alexandria Archeology Laboratory. The correct number is 750-6454.
Today there's an asphalt Park and Shop lot on the south side of King Street's 500 block in Alexandria. Two hundreds years ago, the block was a thriving commercial area with the smokehouse, a silversmith shop, a bakery, several taverns, and an opera house.
Now, before a proposed city courthouse is built on the site, a group of city-sponsored archaelogists is digging beneath the black top in an effort to glean more information on how Alexandria functioned during the pass 200 years.
The city is spending $45,000 in revenue sharing fund plus a $7,000 National Park Service grant to excavate the privies and wells that were the trash dumps of former Alexandrians living in the area.
Bernard Brenman, chairman of the city's 12-member archaeological commission calls the 500 block "a mother-lode of Americana."
Pam Cressey, 31, the archaeologist who heads up the dig call it "high quality trash." But - as she points out - historically significant trash.
"Digging on a site like this is cross checking," she explained. "It's like a multi-dimensional crossword puzzle. We have historical information from the past - surverys, Wills, other records. We have oral history and myths from grandparents and greatparents. What we're doing is tracking the material culture itself and relating it to the other historical data."
Cressey and the volunteers who are helping her spend their work days in the thick rubber boots, mud spattered jeans, rubber gloves, and hard hats, as they carefully and systemically dig through the muck in 20-cetimeter increments.
As Cressey explained, prives and old wells make excellent archeaological sites because in addition to serving their obvious purpose, they also served as garbage dumps. In the absence of municipal garbage collection 100 and 200 years ago, kitchen wastes as well as anything that was broken or had outlived it usefulness was tossed into the privi.
Sometimes, these wooden shafts in the ground - sometimes old wells - that had gone bad.
Cressey believes that the two such "features" being dug now on King Street were originally built as wells, since they are brick-lined and extremely deep. Already, well-over 20 feet have been excavated, and Cressey figures they are at about the 1820-30 level.
The painstaking excavation and sifting procedure has attracted several dozen archaeology and history buffs as volunteers. Creesey estimates as many as 40 to 50 different people have helped on the project since it began in June. She said she looking for more now that school has started and depleted her supply of student helpers. (Anyone interested in volunteering should call 750-6465.)
"We've had people here digging, ages 11 to 77. And the older ones work just as hard as the younger ones," Cressey said.
After the muck is hauled out of the wells in buckets, it is taken across the street, thrown on screens suspended over a dumpster, and washed with a hose. The contents of the screen are sorted into categories - textiles, leather, glass, metal, seeds, ect. These are put into plastic bags and placed into wooden crates which are carefully labeled as to feature and level.
Only after the artifacts are all collected and labeled can they be analyzed and historical data extrapolated from them.
But already some surprising results have been uncovered.
"We're surprised at the volume of fruit seeds and nut shells we're finding - things like date seeds and brazil nuts. Alexandria was obviously carrying on a thriving trade with far away port, and these people were well-to-do," said Jonathan Haas, Cressey's husband, an anthorpologist, who is assisting on the dig.
Soil samples are also being taken at different levels and will be sent to the Alexandria Hospital for testing. The spores of bacteria even 200 years old should produce evidence of disease prevalent at the time.
Once the dig is completed, the objects sifted, and information gathered on how the block of Old Town functioned for 200 years, the most valuable objects will be collected for exhibits, which will be available to schools, libraries, banks.
Cressey is also planning a big push to get the public interested in Alexandria's archaeology project. Daily tours are planned for the site.
"Partially for safety reasons," explained Cressey, who is nervous that some unwitting tourist will topple into one of the pits. "Sometimes we get so many people looking over our shoulders, it's hard to work."
A speakers bureau is planned and Cressey is arranging programs for civic associations, senior citizens groups and high school students this fall.
"After all this is done," said Cressey. "What we will have discovered is not only how people lived in Alexandria 100 and 200 years ago, but, most importantly why."