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. 

House Armed Services Committee Passes NHPA Amendment

On Wednesday evening, Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) proposed amendment to the FY16 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed the House Armed Services Committee. The amendment – based on language proposed by Rep. Issa (R-CA) (H.R. 135) – would allow heads of federal agencies to block or revoke National Register listings for reasons of “national security,” a term not defined in the proposal.

The amendment passed 35-27, largely along party lines, with two exceptions: Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) voted against and Rep. Brad Ashford (D-NE) voted in favor. Rep. Turner (R-OH), Co-Chair of the Historic Preservation Caucus, initially expressed concerns about the amendment, but ultimately did not cast a vote. Reps Davis (D-CA), Tsongas (D-MA), and Bordallo (D-Guam) all spoke against.

SHA’s Government Affairs counsel Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC worked closely this week with partners at NCSHPO, the Trust and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in an effort to defeat the amendment. Despite the cooperation with these partners – as well as great support from SHA members, many of whom reached out to their Reps’ offices to voice their opposition – the amendment is now part of the House NDAA and will head to the House floor. We anticipate this could happen by the third week in May.

SHA is continuing to work with our partners to identify a House member willing to offer an amendment to strip this language from the bill. We will also focus on the Senate, as we did last year; last year’s Senate (when it was majority Dems) did not include a similar amendment in its version of the FY15 NDAA. We will work to make this happen again.

Please keep an eye on SHA emails and social media next month, as we expect to ask members once again to reach out to their Representatives. While we do not have a confirmed date for the floor vote, we expect the House to take up the NDAA sometime during its next session, from May 12 to 21. If you have questions or suggestions, please contact Eden Burgess (eden@culturalheritagepartners.com) or Terry Klein (tklein@srifoundation.org).

#SHA2016 Call for Papers!

The Call for Papers is Now Open!

The deadline for online abstract submission is June 30, 2015. Mailed submissions must be postmarked on or before June 30, 2015. No abstracts will be accepted after June 30, 2015!

The SHA 2016 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology Committee invites you to Washington D.C. to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS) and the 50th Anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The 2016 Conference will take place at the Omni Shoreham Hotel located immediately adjacent to restaurants and within a short walk to the metro. Since 1930, the Omni Shoreham Hotel has hosted presidents, world leaders and inaugural balls— the Beatles stayed here during their first trip to the United States.  The hotel is located in one of the District’s upscale residential neighborhoods just steps away from the National Zoo.

The theme of the conference, A Call to Action: The Past and Future of Historical Archaeology, will focus on the preservation and interpretation of archaeological resources important to the larger historical narrative of all people. Our theme is a broad vision that encourages participants to consider the impact of the NPS and NHPA on the history of Historical Archaeology. We also encourage presenters to reflect on all aspects of our collective archaeological heritage and to explore how it has been examined, interpreted, and preserved. We expect that the theme will foster many papers and symposia that explore the manifestations of the past and future of historical archaeology.

The SHA 2016 Conference Committee hopes to encourage flexibility in the types of sessions offered. Sessions can take the form of formal symposia, panel discussions, or three-minute forums, and each session organizer may organize the time within each session as he/she wishes. Sessions may contain any combination of papers, discussants, and/or group discussion. More than one “discussion” segment is permitted within a symposium, and a formal discussant is encouraged, but not required. All papers will be 15 minutes long. We strongly encourage participants to submit posters, as the latter will be given significant visibility in the conference venue.

The SHA will not provide laptop computers for presenters.  If you are chairing a session in which PowerPoint presentations will be used, you must make arrangements for someone in your session to provide the necessary laptop computer.

The call for papers is posted: http://sha.org/index.php/view/page/annual_meetings

Please review the PDF on the SHA page which has detailed information about the conference, papers, and submission guidelines.  The online abstract submission system can be accessed at: https://www.conftool.com/sha2016/

The SHA.org page, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and the Blog will be updated regularly with conference information with links to hotel reservations, travel tips, travel award application, volunteer forms, and other pertinent information. Be sure to follow the 2016 conference on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #SHA2016.

Any questions about Washington D.C. can be sent to the Program co-Chairs, Julie Schablitsky or Lisa Kraus, at the general program email address: <shaDC2016@gmail.com>.

See you in D.C.!