In a storage room of the visitors center at Great Falls Park in Northern Virginia, thousands of artifacts have been locked away since 1977.

Cardboard boxes floor-to-ceiling hold ceramic pieces, glass milk bottles, a wrought-iron ladle, a bellows arm, an anvil, coins, nails, marbles, spinning tops, bones, and more, dug up in the park in an attempt to understand its history more clearly.

"Great Falls Park is important because this was the first canal in America, guided by the father of the country himself. It the Potowmack Canal at Great Falls was one of the first commercial ventures the colonies worked on after the revolution. This is the story of America in miniature," said James Putman, 54, historian and park ranger. The old Potowmack Canal which runs through the park, is on the opposite side of the river from the C and O Canal.

In all, the National Park Service counts some 30,000 items dumped in disarray for want of manpower to catalogue them.

"Every three months or so I lead a walk and try to snag some people into coming back" to help sort the collection, said Putman. Yesterday, only one person showed up for his talk--and was successfully snagged.

"I plan on coming back. I'd be interested in working on it," said Bill L'Hommedieu, an Arlington graphic designer with an interest in local history.

The 30,000 odds and ends were excavated six years ago by a private company on contract to the park service in the former town of Matildaville, a planned industrial community founded in 1790 and located in the center of what is now Virginia's Great Falls Park.

"Matildaville, a half-mile south of here, was supposed to be a boom town; it lived off the canal trade," explains 15-year-old Paul Gardner, an earnest Park Service volunteer who has spent two years learning about the park, its history and the archaeological findings.

The town, he explains, named after Lighthorse Harry Lee's first wife, went bust as a trade center when the canal was closed in 1830. Except for fragments of an inn, the superintendent's house and a springhouse, the artifacts are all that remain of Matildaville.

The inventory is valuable as history, not for its cash value. "This 1801 penny is worth less than $100. But you can see Lady Liberty's hair is let down; in later drawings it was all pinned up," Gardner says.

"This is called pig iron," he says, hoisting an iron bar that came from a smelter in a recognizable form. "The farmers who became industrial workers called it that because to them it looked like pig sucklings surrounding their mother."

"There are 300 oyster shells found there," Gardner says, pulling out a bagful. "You can make all kinds of guesses about the people who lived there. Did they want the shells to make a walkway? Or maybe they would crush it into powder to make plaster?"

Walking along the holding basin of Potowmack Canal, Putnam passed the foundations of Dickey's Inn and what was once the canal superintendent's house. The inn, which burned down in 1950, was a favorite of every president from Washington to Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom occasionally rode there on horseback, Putman says.

With luck and the help of volunteers, he says, he will produce an exhibition of artifacts, for permanent display in the visitors center. "This type of work is very sensitive," Putman said. "You have to be able to work in a room where it gets up to 100 degrees, with dirty old boxes and things. It's not very glamorous."