The trash you toss out this week may end up in a museum 100 years from now. That's what has happened at the house where President Abraham Lincoln died, which is across the street from Ford's Theatre.
Last November, when three maintenance workers began digging up rotted floorboards in a downstairs bedroom of the historic house -- just one floor below the room where the 16th president of the United States died -- they noticed bones, glasses and ceramic fragments in each shovelful of dirt.
"I really got a little nervous because one thing I didn't want to find was a human skull," said Kenneth Parker, a mason and 18-year veteran of the National Park Service, who was repairing the floor.
"I've never found any bones in all my work with the National Park Service," Parker said, "I thought it had some kind of historic value, so I went across the street and told Joe Geary," site manager of Ford's Theatre and Museum and the Petersen House, where Lincoln died.
The house on 10th Street NW is named after William Petersen, who built the three-story, red-brick dwelling in 1850 after paying $850 for the land a year earlier. Lincoln died there on April 15, 1865. He had been shot while watching a play at Ford's Theatre the night before.
When Geary heard about the unearthed bones he immediately contacted the Park Service's two archeologists for the region, who came to the house and within a week had excavated more than 5,000 artifacts from the 12-by-15-foot room.
"These artifacts are like a window to what life was like in a working class household from 1840 to 1865," said Stephen Potter, chief archeologist for the National Capitol Region of the National Park Service and a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution.
The artifacts "will tell us more about the life of an average family in Washington during the Civil War, a time when our history books are filled with information about more important figures," Potter said. "These people were just ordinary working class people who didn't make a lot of money."
According to U.S. census data, 17 people lived at the Petersen House during the decade of the Civil War, including William and Anna Petersen, their seven children, a servant girl, and seven boarders. For several years all 17 people lived in the house at the same time.
Potter and his assistant, Robert Sonderman, returned two weeks ago and, with the help of five volunteers, dug up an additional 1,000 artifacts before filling in two large 18-inch-deep holes with dirt last week.
More than 1,500 animal bones were uncovered, which Potter said reveal 19th century dietary habits. They were primarily from cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys, and many still have butcher cutting marks. No human bones were uncovered.
"What we found were five layers of preserved trash dating from the early 1840s," Potter explained. "At one time that space was literally where they threw out the trash."
Other artifacts uncovered included a woman's comb, buttons made of bone, shell and glass, clay tobacco pipes, ceramics, an imported glass perfume bottle, children's ceramic marbles, an ink well, tailoring pins, wine goblets, medicine jars and shoes.
The most interesting items unearthed, according to Potter, are pieces of scientific microscope slides, "which were probably used by Julius and Henry Ulke, who were brothers and rather prominent entomologists at that time . . . . "
"We have been able to date many of the artifacts by locating the microscope slides, because we know that the Ulke brothers were boarders at the Petersen house from 1860 to 1865," Potter explained.
It will take at least a year to clean, study and document the 6,000 fragments of 19th century life, Potter said. He will conduct that work along with Sonderman and Matthew Virta, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who has an archeology internship with the Park Service.
After a report is issued on the artifacts' historical value, Geary will determine which pieces will be put on public display.
"If the artifacts prove to be of the value that we think they are, in a historical sense, I would think we could have a nice long-term exhibit here at Ford's Theatre and Petersen House," Geary said.
Potter says the dig is significant because there have been only two other archeological digs in the District's downtown area since 1978 -- at the Washington Convention Center and on Indiana Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets NW.
"Very little is left of the original downtown core of D.C. Ever since the beginning of the 19th century that area has been dug up and torn down several times," Potter explained, "It's rather rare to find layers of archeological remains in this area." He said it is extremely rare to find scientific equipment in an archeological dig.
Already the bits and pieces of ceramic and glass have helped historians confirm that William Petersen worked as a tailor in the house.
"That was merely historical rumor until now," explained Potter, "but now we've found several tailoring pins and buttons to confirm it."
Potter and Sonderman are the Park Service's only paid archeologists for the region that includes the District and portions of West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. "We stay busy," Potter said, laughing. "Right now we're working on 27 projects . . . . We use a lot of volunteers."