Working smoothly and systematically, a dozen volunteers carefully unearthed the remains of an 18th-century church in Fauquier County. Several knelt on the ground and used sharpened trowels to expose the stone foundation. Others collected the loosened dirt and sifted it in search of artifacts, using a special high-powered magnet to separate out earth-encrusted relics.
Finds were methodically placed in plastic bags and labeled with the precise location of each discovery.
Despite its regimented approach, the team of excavators at the Elk Run Anglican Church site is an unusual one. Only one member is a professional archaeologist; the rest are passionate amateurs.
"You might find something no one else has and change something everybody else thought," said 12-year-old Melanie Fuechsel, a seventh-grader who hopes to become an archaeologist. As she sifted through loose dirt, she spotted what she thought might be a piece of quartz. Upon further inspection, the object turned out to be a fragment of a small coin -- a Spanish real, minted in Seville in the 1730s.
Every Saturday during the summer, anyone who wants to can comb through the remains of Elk Run Anglican Church and participate in archaeological study usually reserved for experts.
"All the bits and pieces, the nails and the pottery, rubble and glass tell us the history about Colonial Virginia church life," said Brenda Branscome, a former history teacher who says her interest in archaeology began years ago in the sandbox. She has spent three seasons digging at the site.
A number of the volunteers, in fact, are still in elementary school. On a recent Saturday, Richard Loving of Catlett brought a troop of Scouts, including his sons -- Bailey, 9, and Marshall, 7 -- and promised them a fishing trip after a morning of digging.
With his father's help, Marshall concentrated on brushing the dust off a half-buried brick. Bailey, who had helped at the site before, chose his favorite task -- pushing buckets' worth of soil through the sifter.
"I get to play in the dirt," bragged Bailey, pulling his arms from the mound of earth he was coaxing through a large square sieve. He proudly showed off a piece of glazed brick.
Elk Run Anglican Church was one of the earliest churches in the Piedmont area of Virginia. It was built during the 1750s, replacing a wooden chapel on the site. The first rector was the Rev. James Keith, who was the maternal grandfather of John Marshall, chief justice of the United States.
Ned Browning, a descendant of Pastor Keith's whose family came to own the church site in the 20th century, donated the land and the ruins of the church to St. Stephen's, an Episcopal church about 10 miles north in Catlett. Browning died of cancer in 1999. Edward F. Dandar Jr., a retired Army colonel and the historian of St. Stephen's, has been in charge of the excavation since.
Starting in late spring, Dandar dedicates nearly every weekend to managing the dig: taking off the waterproof tarpaulin that protects the site during the week, coordinating the corps of volunteers and cataloguing the finds, which have included pottery shards, 3,000-year-old arrowheads and pieces of a German 18th-century porcelain jug. In the winter, volunteers pack the site with hay until the next digging season and concentrate on cleaning and identifying artifacts.
Since 2000, archaeologist John Eddins, 52, has donated his expertise to the excavation.
Eddins said that inviting volunteers from the community to help dig is becoming an increasingly popular way to pursue projects that don't have funding. The trick, he said, is to make sure that the helpers, both young and old, are properly trained and monitored.
For example, at first it was difficult to discern what was foundation and what was the rubble around it. Volunteers were taught to use a specialized probe to gently tap away dirt and rocks to expose the original wall without destroying it.
"A lot of times, folks go out there and just dig, and the information isn't recorded properly and then lost" at unsupervised digs, Eddins said.
While further study is necessary to determine the height and appearance of the church, Eddins and others speculate that it somewhat resembled Aquia Church in Stafford, another brick cruciform church that was built in the 1750s and remains open as an Episcopal church.
The group's goal is to finish digging by October and then to get the permits necessary to uncover the graves in the adjacent cemetery and conduct DNA tests on some of the remains. The plan is eventually to build a historic park where church services might be held. Dandar envisions the outline of the foundation protected with a layer of Colonial bricks, with a corner section enclosed in plexiglass-like material for the public to examine.
"It's provided us with a living expression of faith that was here long before the Episcopal church," said the Rev. Roma W. Maycock, who had been the rector of St. Stephen's for 19 years. Working in gardening gloves and khakis, she has found her share of glass shards in the soil.
Maycock said that while the endeavor has strengthened an appreciation for the past among newcomers and longtime residents, sustaining the congregation's interest -- and drawing others to the project -- has become a challenge as the years go by.
"We want things so fast in our society, it's hard to have the patience required for thorough, diligent archaeology," she said.