Archaeology on a Shoe-String in the District of Columbia: An Introduction to the DC Historic Preservation Office

The District of Columbia is a strange political entity and our unique status has unexpected effects on local archaeology. But that makes it a perfect place to focus on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the National Historical Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 and the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, to be commemorated at the #SHA2016 conference. Why? Because Washington is a “special” federal enclave rather than a state and many District affairs are subject to federal laws. The District has a State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO, that was established by, and is annually funded as a result of the NHPA regulations. The federal government owns 21.6% of the land in the District, so one-fifth of our land mass is directly subject to Section 106 of the NHPA. And 17% of District land is managed by NPS, making them a major partner in many archaeological projects.

Washington, D.C. is also a residential city with numerous historic districts and its own preservation laws, and procedures. The SHPO also serves as the “local” Historic Preservation Office (DC HPO). The District has a rich cultural history that began long before it was chosen for the nation’s capital which includes both prehistoric and colonial resources. In recent years we’ve seen an explosion of development that has led to dozens of city-funded archaeological surveys in addition to the ones conducted for federal projects. The bulk of these local projects were on city park and school properties, which comprise some of our largest non-federal open spaces. Among the sites identified are significant prehistoric camps and quarries, Civil War-era military and contraband camps, antebellum estates and tenant farms, former cemeteries, and urban row houses and alley dwellings. Archaeology offers a unique perspective – and sometimes the only material evidence — on events that were often ignored or overlooked in documentary sources. As the city’s Archaeology Team, we operate at both the federal and city levels, consulting with agencies on project concepts to ensure locations that merit survey are identified early on in the planning process, reviewing survey work plans, and commenting on draft technical reports. We are also responsible for maintaining and managing the archaeological collections, all paper and digital records, the site files, our Geographic Information System (GIS), and the archaeological survey report library. Any outreach, and education we get to conduct is pure “gravy!” Our efforts are somewhatconstrained because Chardé Reid, the assistant archaeologist, is a limited-term contract. Despite the challenges, we have forged a public outreach program on a shoestring! We have developed strategic partnerships with a variety of groups, and rely on the contributions of our graduate student interns and volunteers. Stipends are sometimes available for our interns, but the real payoff for them is the experience in a SHPO, and mentoring as they enter the job market.

Archaeology has quite a bit of community support in the District and Washingtonians turn out at our events, tune in to radio shows, and email us all the time! Mitchell Park is a great example of this. The park is located on the site of a large farm-house built by Anthony Holmead in 1795, and is a National Register-listed property. When a neighborhood group, Friends of Mitchell Park, raised funds to renovate and improve the park, they also funded an archaeological investigation of the Holmead House site. Community members now serve as site guardians and vigilantly protect the resource, which remains buried beneath their feet. Community support for archaeology may be tied to other concerns, as when groups attempt to use site preservation as a tactic to impede development even before any investigations occur. This is a tricky line for us to walk, since we promote an archaeological preservation ethic, but we also need to be sensitive to public benefits of development. We can’t short-circuit the review process to appease one constituent, because there are many competing needs and perspectives.

We do as much public outreach as possible given all our other responsibilities and limited staff. As the city grows and our demographics change, it becomes increasingly important for residents (especially young people) to understand the city’s history, diversity, and unique neighborhoods. We talk to schools, clubs, community history and heritage groups, and at neighborhood libraries, and we bring along displays and artifacts from our collections. Student interns are a big part of these outreach events and often plan and program them. We have gained the most ground by partnering with local non-profits, such as Archaeology in the Community. They have the capacity to organize annual events like Archaeology Day (in October) and Day of Archaeology (in July). Even NPS has gotten involved at the local level by starting a summer Urban Archaeology Corps program comprising District high school through college-age youth, who learn about local history, archaeology, and NPS careers. While few UAC participants plan to study archaeology, their feedback indicates they like learning about their neighborhood history and regret not getting more of it in school.

The lens of archaeology is our tool for providing alternative perspectives on the District’s long and diverse history. We have the ability to look at groups often overlooked by more traditional history. The lens, while powerful, requires that some remnants of the past remain in the ground. Therefore, continued protection and management of archaeological resources are needed. But our efforts also need support from an educated and empowered public, who embrace and advocate for archaeology because they believe it enriches historical narratives. Identification and preservation of archaeological resources is best done by concerted efforts of preservation partners at every level, including Federal, District, and neighborhood entities. We look forward to engaging more groups as we increase our outreach capacity and visibility through our limited – but successful — “shoestring” efforts.

Chardé Reid, Assistant City Archaeologist, DC Historic Preservation Office

Lois Berkowitz, volunteer at the DC Historic Preservation Office

Ruth Trocolli, City Archaeologist, DC Historic Preservation Office

Photo cred: Jason Hornick.

 


Recommended Links

http://planning.dc.gov/historicpreservation

http://planning.dc.gov/page/archaeology-district-columbia

http://planning.dc.gov/publication/2016-district-columbia-historic-preservation-plan

http://tiny.cc/ArchyTour

http://www.nps.gov/rap/

http://www.nps.gov/rap/archeology/spotlight_ROCR.htmhttp://www.mitchellparkdc.org/history.html

http://www.archaeologyincommunity.com/

http://groundworkdc.org/programs/urban-archeology-corps/

http://ncptt.nps.gov/blog/nps-archeology-program-urban-archeology-corps/

http://www.maacmidatlanticarchaeology.org/

Historical Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Greetings from Virginia! Though the #SHA2016 Annual Meeting is some months away, we are assisting the social media committee in presenting the archaeological outlets that the Washington, DC metro area has to offer. Archaeology plays a major role towards interpreting George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and we are pleased to take this opportunity to briefly introduce our program and some of our recent projects.

George Washington called Mount Vernon home for 45 years, and though two wars and a Presidency often called him away from his estate, Mount Vernon was his life’s work. Washington transformed a modest farm house into the mansion we see today, significantly altered the grounds around his homelot to create a formalized ornamental landscape, and successfully farmed an 8,000 acre plantation. A period of estate decline following Washington’s death in 1799 sparked a nation-wide effort to preserve Mount Vernon, spearheaded by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) who bought the mansion house and the surrounding 200 acres in 1858.

View form the Central Passage towards the Potomac. Photo Cred: Karen Price

While archaeological investigations at Mount Vernon have occurred since the 1930s, the majority of collections are from the professional archaeology program established in 1987 and a survey of the property conducted in 1984 and 1985. Excavations have yielded over a million artifacts providing a rich assemblage to study the intertwined lives of the plantation community: enslaved individuals, hired white workers, and Washington family members. Since the department’s inception we have excavated significant sites within Mount Vernon’s historic core including the south grove midden, a large concentration of trash associated with the Washington family from c. 1735–1765, and the House for Families cellar, the main slave dwelling used from c.1760—1793 located at Washington’s Mansion House Farm. Archaeological excavation and research has contributed to the re-discovery and reconstruction of George Washington’s whiskey distillery, a major operation which may have been the largest one of its kind in the United States by the close of the 18th century.

A visitor to the Estate. Photo Cred: Karen Price

Our archeology team is part of the Preservation Division of the larger Mount Vernon Department of Historic Preservation and Collections. Esther White directs our division, with archaeological fieldwork under the supervision of Deputy Director for Archaeology Eleanor Breen and Assistant Director for Archaeological Research Luke Pecoraro. Karen Price is our lab manager and photographer, and Leah Stricker serves as the field crew chief. Within the division is Deputy Director for Architectural History Thomas Reinhart, assisted by his staff of architectural conservator Steve Stuckey, and preservation technicians Elizabeth Rival and Caroline Spurry. Our staff also includes Eric Benson, who manages our GIS and viewshed preservation efforts. With our small staff we work together to fulfill the goals of our department to maintain, research, and manage the valuable historic resources at Mount Vernon.

The Mansion and Bowling Green after snowfall. Photo Cred: Karen Price

Current fieldwork will return us to the south grove this summer to fully investigate the transformation of the space form a work yard to a formal landscaped area, and we will continue an ongoing program of public archaeology in the estate’s slave cemetery. Our survey of the slave cemetery is an attempt to better understand the layout and number of individuals interred in a plot located just 200 feet south of the Washington family tomb. Our field and labwork keeps us busy year-round, and we regularly post updates via our FaceBook page—Historic Preservation at Mount Vernon—and invite you to follow us. An intensive evaluation of the finds from the south grove midden including high-quality artifact photographs was launched in web form recently and can be viewed here: http://www.mountvernonmidden.org/. Our website provides a great resource for these sites and programs in addition to the other activities going on at Mount Vernon: http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/archaeology/.For those of you who want to join us in the field this summer, check out our field school in historic preservation – http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/archaeology/volunteer-or-intern-with-the-archaeology-team/.

 

Famed 19th-century orator Edward Everett once remarked “A visit to the National Capital is but half made unless it includes the home and tomb of Washington.” When you make the trip to attend next year’s annual meeting, we hope that you will take some extra time for a visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Digs in D.C.?

What do you know about the D.C. area, archaeologically? What institutions, organizations, nonprofits, public agencies manage and help preserve our dc archaeological heritage? In upcoming posts, we will be highlighting some of the major D.C. (and surrounding MD and VA) area organizations, who diligently work towards safe-guarding, interpreting, and disseminating our the historical heritage of our Nation’s Capitol City.

These organizations have only expanded in reach, especially since the passing of the NHPA in 1966, a major movement for historic preservation and the field of archaeology. Some of these organizations advise and help guide policies, while others help generate public interest in specific issues. Some make major contributions to areas of study, and others help promote studies through outreach programs. In this way, D.C. manages archaeological heritage on a national but also local scale.

Take a peek, below, at some of these D.C. area organizations!