5 Archaeological Things to See and Do in Washington D.C.

Remember, the last day to submit your #SHA2016 conference abstract is June 30th, 2015. See our previous blog post with the Call for Papers: http://www.sha.org/blog/index.php/2015/05/sha2016-call-for-papers/

As we have seen in the last several posts, Washington D.C. and it’s surrounding area is a thriving place for history and archaeology. Archaeologists are doing important work engaging the public and interpreting the past of the nation’s capital. When we all travel to D.C. for #SHA2016 there are plenty of places to explore that capture the essence of this area’s heritage. Below, are five places to visit:

The National Museum of the American Indian

A new exhibit entitled “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World” opens at the Museum of the American Indian this September. What looks to be an incredible exhibit focuses on indigenous cosmologies, introducing the worldviews and cultural philosophies of eight communities all over the western hemisphere. This exhibit will run until October 2017 and along with the many other feature collections at the Museum, is a must see during our stay in Washington D.C.

Check it out: http://americanindian.si.edu/          Free of Charge

Alexandria Archaeology Museum

Located just a metro ride away, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum features exhibits highlighting their excavations of The Lee Street Site, the Green Furniture Factory, and the Ashby household. The museum also features hands-on-activities for adults and children alike, and the space also doubles as a public laboratory. You can also get information to walk the Alexandria Heritage Trail, which is a 23-mile walking and bike tour that takes you through 110 historical and archaeological sites representing the history of Alexandria.

Check it out: http://alexandriava.gov/Archaeology       Free of Charge

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress houses millions of artifacts and archives that, as archaeologists, we know are important resources. The Museum features exhibits commemorating the history of the Library, the architecture of the Thomas Jefferson building, and its celebrated holdings, including the Gutenberg Bible. You can join a one-hour walking tour of the historic building or enjoy a self-guided tour. Definitely take time to explore the reading rooms, and even take an extra day to use the research centers to examine the Library’s archival materials for your own research.

Check it out: https://www.loc.gov/          Free of Charge

 

The National Geographic Museum

If you decide to make a longer trip to Washington D.C., make sure to stop by the National Geographic Museum. Ending January 3rd, the “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology” exhibit juxtaposes real archaeological artifacts with a collection of film materials from the movie. How many of us get asked if archaeologists are like Indiana Jones, well this seems like an exhibit that explores the difference! If you can’t make this exhibit, the National Geographic Museum showcases their stunning photography from all over the world.

Check it out: http://events.nationalgeographic.com/national-geographic-museum/Ticketed

Dumbarton Oaks

Located in Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is a research institution with collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. The House collection showcases the historic interiors with Asian, European, and American artworks and interior furnishings donated by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss between 1940 and 1969. Docent-led tours take place every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 3:00 pm, but the Museum is open from 11:30 to 5:30 for self-guided tours.

Check it out: http://www.doaks.org/        Free of Charge

Throughout the summer we will be linking to more “archaeological” sightseeing opportunities in Washington D.C.

Archaeology in the Community: Stepping up and Reaching out

This week’s #SHA2016 blog post highlights Archaeology in the Community, a nonprofit, archaeological outreach program serving the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area!  Read below to learn more about AITC, and please visit their website, Facebook, and Twitter pages!

We are Archaeology in the Community, and we LIVE to bring archaeology to the public!

In 2006, AITC founder Dr. Alexandra Jones noticed that many of the young students in her Washington, D.C. neighborhood had never heard of archaeology, let alone met an archaeologist. As a trained archaeologist and educator, Dr. Jones was inspired to engage young people within her community and teach them the importance of archaeology. The program she created, Archaeology in the Community (AITC), allowed students in her community the unique opportunity to learn about their families’ histories and their community’s past from an archaeologist who lived around the block.

Dr. Jones began creating several customizable educational programs to teach archaeology in alignment with school curricula. These programs gained momentum across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia and, in 2009, AITC became a chartered 501(c)3 nonprofit that promotes and facilitates the study and public understanding of archaeological heritage.

AITC ‘s overall goal has been for “us”—the students, teachers, archaeologists, field techs, community members, curators, artists, and activists—to step up and participate in the archaeological conversation. Our voices are crucial to the health of the field. As Jennifer McKinnon writes in her own SHA blog post, “It Takes A Village to Build a Trail”:

“…No amount of research can prepare one for the diversity in meaning and importance of heritage to a community; one member has a completely different understanding of a shared bit of heritage from the next member. And it is important to incorporate as many of those voices as possible…No matter how well-funded, presented or shiny an idea is, if a community isn’t behind it, it has no worth.”

By consistently reminding our friends, our families, our community, that every artifact and site can help connect us to a particular day in history, a specific person, a local movement, a policy, and/or the global stage, we achieve our goal. Since 2009, AITC has helped increase community awareness of the benefits of archaeology and history through public events, enrichment programs, as well as provided professional development to college students interested in pursuing careers in archaeology.  At AITC, we create truly unique programs where the larger community and we can join into the conversation about archaeology through various mediums; art, food, music, written word and traditional archaeology.  All artifacts, no matter how seemingly trite, embody economic, social, political and spiritual stories. AITC has partnered with educational institutions, cultural establishments, and community organizations to bring this to fruition, and has since expanded our social media presence to reach the general public.

Students write questions for archaeologists.

Students learn the basics of excavation.

Day of Archaeology Festival 2014

Please visit our website and our Facebook and Twitter pages for more information and a look into some of our public events!

And, if you are in town July 18th, come join us for Day of Archaeology Festival, at Dumbarton Oaks!

Reflections on Archaeology in the District of Columbia

Today’s #SHA2016 blog post is a repost by Charlie LeeDecker, who recently retired from the Louis Berger Group’s Washington, D.C. office, in 2014. As the D.C. Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office notes, Mr. LeeDecker spent the last 30 plus years conducting archaeological investigations for development projects and as a consulting archaeologist for federal agencies. He has worked on dozens of projects and in every ward of the District. On May, 6, 2015, Mr. Charlie LeeDecker received a District of Columbia Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation (HP) in the category of Archaeology for his body of work in the District. The post is his reminiscences on a career that focused on the buried history of our nation’s capital.

Original Blog Post by Charlie LeeDecker

Washington, D.C., is one of the world’s greatest cities, and it’s been a great privilege to pursue a career in archaeology here, working alongside a large community of talented, passionate, and creative historic preservation professionals. One of my long-time professional goals has been to gain greater visibility for city’s archaeological resources. When I look at an old building, a landscape or even a parking lot, I want to see beyond what is immediately visible, and learn how this particular place came to be what it is today, how it developed through history, and what can we learn from the values, struggles, and daily lives of the people who lived and worked here generations ago. The archaeological record is mostly hidden from view, especially in urban areas, and sometimes when we look below the surface we find amazing stories that entertain, enlighten, and enrich our understanding of how our city came to look like it does today.

The city’s natural waterways — the Anacostia River and Potomac River waterfront areas, even the valley of Rock Creek and the smaller tributaries that feed these waterways – were the first places settled by European colonizers, the sites of our earliest industries, and the favored locations for the camps and villages of Native Americans that lived here for thousands of years before the first European explored the Chesapeake. While these areas contain the richest record of cultural development, they area also the most challenging to investigate archaeologically. In these areas, the natural or historic landscape has been layered below occupied buildings, pavement, formal landscapes, and massive amounts of fill soils that are occasionally contaminated with industrial waste.

I’ve had the privilege of working for many years in the Washington Navy Yard and the Navy Yard Annex (now known as the Southeast Federal Center). First established in 1799, the Navy Yard has played an important role in our national security and the development of military technology, and the historical significance of the Navy Yard is recognized by multiple historic districts, including a National Historic Landmark designation. We know from archival sources that the Navy Yard might include an archaeological record of the site’s early industrial history, especially shipbuilding and ordnance development. But opportunities to conduct archaeological investigations in the Navy Yard are limited by factors such as a high water table and nearly ubiquitous occupied buildings and pavement.

The relocation of Naval Sea Systems (NAVSEA) Command to the Navy Yard required rehabilitation of many historic structures, along with demolition of some buildings and new construction. Impacts to the historic districts and buildings were evaluated prior to construction, but archaeological work was deferred until the construction phase. There are serious risks with this approach – risks that archaeological resources might be destroyed without adequate documentation, and risks that archaeological work might cause delays to the construction schedule. Managing these risks required an unusual level of partnership between the construction and archaeological teams, but ultimately, the risks were rewarded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Archaeological documentation in the interior of Building 104 at the Washington Navy Yard, during rehabilitation for the NAVSEA project

Archaeological documentation in the interior of Building 104 at the Washington Navy Yard, during rehabilitation for the NAVSEA project

Some of the best opportunities for archaeological work occurred during the rehabilitation of historic buildings, after the interiors were gutted and the floor slabs were removed. At Building 104 we were able to document remains of the Brass Gun Factory, including features associated with furnaces and a casting pit. At another site, we found massive furnace foundations associated with the New Ordnance Foundry, a structure built during the Civil War to cast large, smooth bore cannon cast that were formed in a distinctive “soda bottle” shape, known as the Dahlgren cannon. We also documented remains of the West Shiphouse, a structure built around 1825 that was used for repair of 19th-century naval vessels. Reaching seven stories in height and extending over an area of roughly 100×300 feet, this shiphouse was one of the most prominent structures along the lower Anacostia River, visible in many nineteenth-century views of the city.

Much of my work over the last 10 years has been in and around the parklands in the city’s monumental core area, including the National Mall, the Ellipse, West Potomac Park, and the Washington Monument grounds. Historically, these iconic landscapes were originally low-lying tidal flats and open water at the mouth of Tiber Creek, a tributary of the Potomac that disappeared long ago. For thousands of years, Native Americans camped along the banks of the Tiber, and after the City of Washington was established in 1790, the creek was transformed first into a canal, then a foul sewer that carried the city’s waste into the Potomac. Tiber Creek and its banks were filled during the nineteenth century. Some of the filling was a result of efforts to improve the land around the White House but most of the fills – millions of cubic yards – was deposited during efforts to maintain the river’s navigation channels and control flooding that ravaged the city.

Some of the most interesting finds were unearthed along 17th Street. One of these was a wharf built in 1807 at the foot of 17th Street where it extended into Tiber Creek. The 17th Street Wharf was a shipping point for the early city, its importance growing after 1833, when it became a hub connecting the Washington City Canal and the Washington Branch of the C&O Canal. The wharf disappeared in 1902 when 17th Street was extended after land reclamation had been completed on Potomac Flats.

Documentation of the original foundation of the Lockkeeper's House at 17th Street; the foundation wall is 11.5 feet below present grade and was preserved in place during a sewer line replacement project.

Documentation of the original foundation of the Lockkeeper’s House at 17th Street; the foundation wall is 11.5 feet below present grade and was preserved in place during a sewer line replacement project.

The Lock Keeper’s House that stands at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue gives a hint of how different today’s landscape is from that of the 19th century. The C&O Canal Extension followed the shoreline of the Potomac from Georgetown, ending at the 17th Street Wharf. At that point, a canal lock accommodated the changing elevation between Lock 1 in Georgetown and the tidal waters at 17th Street. When 17th Street was extended in 1902, the Lockkeeper’s House was moved about 50 feet, but its original foundation was left in place where it was exposed during the replacement of a sewer line. After exposure of the Lockkeeper’s House foundation, we should not have been surprised that the actual canal lock would be found a few feet away. Sure enough, as the tunnel for the sewer line proceeded beneath Constitution Avenue, there it was!

Perhaps the most spectacular find along 17th Street was the “Mother of All Sewers,” aka the Tiber Creek Sewer Outlet. As the city developed in the nineteenth century, the Washington City Canal became a major nuisance, essentially an open sewer that collected waste from much of the downtown area. In the 1870s the city began to cover the Washington City Canal, converting it to an underground sewer. Following the area’s natural topography and hydrology, the sewer outfall was located at the intersection of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, where waste emptied directly into the Potomac. Like the 17th Street Wharf and the C&O Canal Extension, the sewer outfall was engulfed during the land reclamation process that led to the creation of West Potomac Park. Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the sewer outlet was an immense structure, measuring some 40 feet across its headwall.

With these and the findings from many other studies, the understanding of archaeology in the District has been increasing. Some of my most satisfying projects have been those that presented the greatest challenges and that required strong partnerships among project proponents, review agencies, and construction teams. Without the commitment of all stakeholders, some of the city’s most interesting archaeological resources might have remained virtually unknown and forgotten. The amazing opportunities to document the historic foundries at the Navy Yard, the wharf beneath the pavement of 17th Street and the canal lock below Constitution Avenue would not have been possible under conventional archaeological survey methods and would not have happened without committed partnerships among all of the project stakeholders. Going forward, I hope that the preservation community will continue to challenge us to think creatively to search for new ways to bring the city’s archaeological heritage to light.

View of the headwall of the Tiber Creek Sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW.  Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the Lockkeeper's House is in the background, at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23.5 feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic.

View of the headwall of the Tiber Creek Sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW. Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the Lockkeeper’s House is in the background, at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23.5 feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic.