Economic Development

Digital-Age Digs

For more than 200 years, St. Mary's Catholic Church Cemetery has anchored the corner of Washington and Church streets in Alexandria, Virginia, while several enterprises have...
by | November 30, 2007

For more than 200 years, St. Mary's Catholic Church Cemetery has anchored the corner of Washington and Church streets in Alexandria, Virginia, while several enterprises have come and gone on the lot across the road - most recently, a gas station and a small office building. Few people knew that another cemetery lay under those markers of suburban life. That is, until a decade ago, when the city historian came across some old records showing that a cemetery created by the federal government in 1864 contains the remains of some 1,800 African-American men, women and children.

Since then, Alexandria has reclaimed the land and torn down the modern structures. Last May, archaeologists began scraping with trowels, measuring with tapes, marking with strings and brushing dirt with their hands to find and document the graves of "freedmen," who escaped from slavery during the Civil War and sought refuge in Union-occupied Alexandria.

But if the use of trowels and string dates back to archaeology's emergence as a systematic discipline in the 19th century, field technicians increasingly are utilizing high-tech tools to preserve the past. Global positioning systems and geographic information systems help pinpoint and research existing sites. In addition, Alexandria uses the digital information for "predictive modeling," which can identify the likely location of undiscovered sites with similar characteristics. The city then can assess proposed development plans, and archaeologists can find, document and remove artifacts before construction begins. Digital archives make it easier to add to and search all the findings.

Alexandria is one of the few cities with archaeologists on staff, and its program is considered a model. More than half the states, meanwhile, have offices that perform similar services and help local governments mine their history. For instance, the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation in Washington State has more than 14,000 sites on record, and records an average of 20 new sites each month.


Digging into the layers beneath existing communities reveals pieces of our past that cannot be known any other way. Although people have been living in North America for at least 14,000 years, written records on certain populations are sparse. The only way to learn more about prehistoric Indians, for example, is to burrow beneath the surface. Similarly, while the country knows some of the history of African-American slaves, much of their background and many of their experiences were never recorded. This summer, archaeologists in Philadelphia discovered the slave quarters behind the house that George Washington and John Adams resided in during their presidencies. Ironically, they are across the street from Independence Hall and only five feet from the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.

Tourists in Philadelphia also can view an excavated portion of the site where Benjamin Franklin lived. In Florida, the Windover Archaeological Project dug up a site where Native Americans lived and found the 7,000-year-old remains of a three-year-old holding a wooden pestle-shaped object and the carapace of a small turtle.

The findings are cultural resources in the same way that historic buildings and famous natural landmarks are. Excavating sites not only helps interpret and record those resources, it also is the basis for tourism in communities that create heritage trails or museums of cultural history. Important sites turn up in unexpected places: under downtown convention centers and suburban strip malls or atop hills and deep in forests, where nothing's been disturbed for a hundred years. "In Alexandria, you can excavate a parking lot or a basement of a building and find that there was a river underneath originally," says Pam Cressey, one of Alexandria's four staff archaeologists. Field technicians have found Portuguese ceramics older than the city itself and wharves from the 18th century with ships still tied to them. The city has preserved more than 2 million items.

Thirty-five states have archaeology offices located in departments ranging from archaeology to historic preservation to natural resources to economic development, depending on the political culture that created them. Often, the office is housed in a university. Federal law requires states to have historic preservation offices but not archaeology departments. So states have had to enact their own laws.

Arkansas' state archaeologist, Ann Early, wishes local governments would rely less on the state for information about their buried past. "I would love to see large cities in Arkansas have their own archaeologists," she says. The Arkansas Archeological Survey, a state agency, has a dozen regional archaeologists. It operates like an agriculture extension service, doing public outreach across Arkansas.

Connecticut has 169 municipalities, all with autonomous land-use decision-making powers and not much staff archaeological expertise. During a building boom in 1987, the state created an archaeology office to provide technical assistance with archaeological resources that might be affected by development. "We would encourage local governments to develop regulations to protect local histories and to preserve cultural resources," says Nicholas Bellantoni, the state archaeologist.

Any good program will incorporate GIS - a "magnificent management tool" for archaeology, according to Bellantoni. It makes a "world of difference" to record spatial locations and enter them into a database. Connecticut's database of all known archaeological sites goes back 11,000 years, beginning with Native Americans after the glaciers receded.

GPS also is important. When a site is discovered in the middle of 10,000 undeveloped acres, archaeologists need to orient themselves and have a way to get back there, particularly if there are no significant landmarks nearby. "If it's in the back swamps of the Mississippi River or in the Ouachita Mountains, you can't find anything to use" to locate it the next time, Arkansas' Early notes. Before GPS came along, archaeologists measured distance from a recognizable landmark and used compasses. Early recalls using her car's odometer to measure a distance of 10 miles along a dirt road.

Even GPS, however, doesn't have the down-to-the-centimeter precision that Early would like. She's also skeptical about GIS "layers." Although they have the potential for managing large volumes of spatial information and looking for patterns of distribution, Early advises colleagues that they "don't answer all problems" with identifying sites. "They're often heavily biased because of the way the information was collected," she says, noting that it was not with archaeologists in mind.

Archaeological digs often get started when a developer requests approval for a project. Alexandria passed an ordinance in 1989 that all plans must be reviewed by the archaeology office. "We try to catch all ground disturbances in the city," says Steven Shephard, assistant city archaeologist, who wanders around digs with a trowel sticking out of his pocket.

It can be a thorn in the business community's side if developers have to move or alter projects. Governments try not to deter building plans. Connecticut can delay construction in an area of discovery for only five working days. The department will assess what needs to be done to excavate and preserve artifacts or information. "It shouldn't hold anyone up," he says. Sometimes the findings become assets. A developer in Alexandria decided to incorporate a lock from a buried canal into the building project, making it a conversation piece.

Coastal states, meanwhile, have jurisdiction over cultural resources up to 3 miles offshore and some of them employ underwater archaeologists. Georgia has been researching the Water Witch, a vessel from the early 1850s that served the Union fleet by running mail during the Civil War. It's now resting in a tidal river. From remote sensing equipment and side-scan sonar, information is loaded onto state systems to enhance the GIS database.

Florida has created a maritime trail for tourists that includes several shipwrecks. The state also has a collection of 22,000 silver and 1,400 gold Spanish colonial coins contributed by treasure-hunting companies it has on contract. But the state is more interested in the personal artifacts and cultural value from the ships than the financial take. The wrecks also are a draw for recreational scuba divers. The ships range from a Spanish galleon that ran aground in 1733 to shipwrecks from the 20th century.


One archaeologist is considering a creative way to learn more about local history. Archaeologist Michael Clem in Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the country's fastest-developing counties, hopes to do an "artifacts road show," similar to the popular television program "Antiques Roadshow." He envisions people bringing in things they've found. "It anchors people to the community a little more to be aware of the history," he says. "They feel a tie to it in some way. They're a part of history, or will be." It will benefit the county to note where the artifact was found and get a better idea where important sites are. At the same time, citizens would gain insights about the objects they possess.

Meanwhile, tourists flock to Old Town Alexandria, just minutes from Washington, D.C., to take in its Federal-style architecture and brick-paved streets, as well as the city's many restaurants, shops and art galleries. But as the third-oldest historic district in the country, after Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, Alexandria is sitting on an archaeological bonanza. The first city archaeologist came on board in 1975. The department now has a budget of $520,000. City archaeologists don't dig so much as oversee the private archaeologists that the city or developers hire. Alexandria has a mandate to protect and preserve its cultural resources and give the information back to its residents.

In the case of the Freedmen's Cemetery, the city is in the process of honoring residents' wishes to turn it into a Memorial Park. But first, archaeologists want to identify as many graves as possible. Many coffins were broken during the asphalt pouring years ago and scattered bones show up in the soil. "We're mapping where the graves are so they won't be disturbed in the future," says Shephard. When technicians hit a coffin edge, they look for changes in soil color, then document and add to a database the information they find.

They've learned that the freedmen were buried in a Christian manner, with their heads to the West. And that every eighth row seems to be a walkway. They've also found prehistoric artifacts, such as a Clovis spear point dating from 13,000 years ago. When the research is completed, two feet of dirt will cover the graves to protect them from any more disturbances before work on the park begins.

That is one of many projects and programs Alexandria's archaeology office oversees. During urban renewal along the popular shopping district on King Street, the city found "sensational" artifacts, such as old privies. "There was great stuff coming out of these junk holes in the city," Cressey says. It made people realize that archaeology is as important as development.

The city doesn't stop at digging. It also runs an oral history program to collect memories of seniors and transcribes and puts them on its Web site. Students are offered special events, biking tours, lectures and hands-on activities. The Web site presents trail guides, podcasts and interpretive plans for different parts of town. "Alexandrians are very preservation-conscious," says Cressey.


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