If the ground under your feet could talk, what stories would it tell?
That’s the question posed by a Manassas Museum exhibit running through Feb. 15. “What’s Under Your Feet?” displays artifacts unearthed in archaeological digs throughout Manassas. It challenges visitors to reflect on what those artifacts teach us about the city’s history.
Many archaeological excavations have taken place over the past 30 years at sites in the City of Manassas, said Mary Helen Dellinger, the museum’s curator. The new exhibit was conceived as a way to display some of the most interesting artifacts uncovered in those digs, she said.
“We thought it would be fun to highlight some of those sites and talk about how these objects can inform us about how these historic sites were used for people that lived there,” Dellinger said.
One of the exhibit’s themes is the hidden history of local sites. A place might be associated with its use during a certain time period, but the artifacts found there may reveal that the site had a more diverse history.
Dellinger said the Hopkins Candy Factory building on Battle Street in downtown Manassas is one example. The building was constructed in 1908 on the site of an old hotel that burned down three years earlier. The blaze destroyed part of the downtown.
The candy factory operated in the building for the first part of the 20th century. The building was adapted later for other uses, including an auto supply business and a feed company, Dellinger said. The Center for the Arts occupies it now.
The exhibit describes how a 2002 project to install a new elevator in the building uncovered bricks and evidence of a fire, halting the work and leading to an archaeological excavation.
“They found a lot of different things that speak to its different uses, and what has happened on the property,” Dellinger said. Some of the items apparently date to the site’s days as a hotel, Dellinger said: doorknobs, liquor, wine bottles and what appears to be the leg of a carrier pigeon.
“Here you have this building that everybody thinks they know, but the site itself has a fabulous history,” Dellinger said. “The archaeology informs us about what was there and is now lost.”
The Clover Hill Slave Quarters, which Dellinger said might be the oldest building in Manassas, is the only building in the exhibit that is not owned by the city. The building, owned by Grace United Methodist Church, has had many uses since it housed slaves who worked at the Clover Hill Farm.
An excavation in 1989 and 1990 unearthed animal bones and peach pits, giving clues about the diet of those who lived there, Dellinger said. Other artifacts found at the site included buttons, an inkwell and an iron griddle.
“Those are amazing artifacts that tell the story of a people that don’t have a written history,” said Sara Poore, a guest curator who helped organize the exhibit and wrote the text for the informational panels.
The exhibit also includes items found in excavations at the Mayfield Earthwork Fort and house, the Liberia Plantation and the Manassas Industrial School. The industrial school, founded in 1893 by former slave Jennie Dean, educated African American youths for 44 years, according to the exhibit.
One display case houses artifacts that Dellinger said predate the settlement of Manassas by Europeans — a stone ax head and a collection of arrowheads found in archaeological sites throughout the city.
Visitors will also find exhibit-related activities for children, a display of archaeological tools and a box showing items buried in various depths of soil.
“People can see that the farther back you get, the older the stuff gets,” Dellinger said. “That has been a great illustration for people — that you don’t really realize what is under the ground.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.