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. 

Maryland Historical Trust and the “Archeological Synthesis” Project

As part of our #SHA2016 series on Washington D.C. archaeology, below we repost a wonderful archaeological project undertaken at the Maryland Historical Trust by Research Archaeologist Matthew D. McKnight. The mission of the Maryland Historical Trust is to preserve and interpret the legacy of Maryland’s past through research, conservation, and education of their historical and cultural heritage. The  “Archeological Synthesis” Project is an important online resource for anyone interested in Maryland archaeology, and it shows the great work being done by archaeologists in the D.C. area:

Maryland’s “Archeological Synthesis” Project

by Matthew D. McKnight, Research Archeologist, Maryland Historical Trust

Are you a student, weekend researcher, or preservation professional with an interest in Maryland archeology? Are you a professional archeologist looking to conduct some background research on a specific artifact or site type? Have you been confounded in the past by lack of access to so much of the CRM “gray literature”? If so, the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) has a new online resource that may be of interest to you.

On Maryland Day (Wednesday, March 25th, 2015) the MHT’s Office of Archeology launched a new online tool to provide members of the public with greater access to data obtained through tax-payer funded and publically mandated archeological research. Funded by generous support from the MHT Board of Trustees and the Maryland State Highway Administration’s Transportation Enhancement Program, the Maryland Archeological Synthesis Project has been underway since late 2007, reviewing the nearly 50 years of archeological site reports generated in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and similar state and local legislation. The overall goal of the project has been to characterize this data for as wide an audience as possible and produce a number of online and print products to make the information more accessible. Two volumes on Maryland archeology (one on prehistory and one on Colonial archeology) are still in the works, but the first major public offering of the Synthesis Project is now available on the web at https://webapps.mdp.state.md.us/apps/synthesis/.

This Archeological Synthesis Database is a first-of-its-kind online catalog of archeological sites within the state where Phase II and Phase III test excavations have taken place. Focusing on compliance-driven research, the database is linked to MHT’s Site Survey files, but is also tied to synopsis reports and cover sheets generated by reviewing larger excavation reports. The synopsis reports contain capsule summaries of the overall site reports, organized so researchers can quickly pull out the most relevant information needed for determining if a particular site is of interest. Cover sheets deal with the history of archeological activity at a site, specifically the justifications for fieldwork, research objectives, and potential for future research. Best of all, the entire database is keyword searchable. Simply type in your research topic or an artifact type and get back a list of sites that may be of interest. More robust searches can even be carried out on variables like soil type, archeological research unit, county, etc.

Two versions of the database are available online. One portal is open to the general public; the other is available to professional archeologists who meet the US Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Professional Qualifications. Search functionality and the universe of sites within the database are identical in both versions. However, geographic locations and site setting information within the Public Access version of the database are intentionally vague to protect site locations. The Professional Access version of the database includes detailed site location information and is only available to authorized archeologists who have obtained a Medusa account with archeological data privileges.

After considerable public expense to undertake archeological work, test results should not be buried on a library shelf. The only way to advance archeological research is to build upon past experience, but the data from past work needs to be readily available. This project begins to rectify both long-standing problems while giving back to the public a view of the State’s rich archeological heritage. You can read more about the Maryland Archeological Synthesis Project at http://mht.maryland.gov/archeology_synthesis.shtml.

Check out the Maryland Historical Trust blog post on the “Archeological Synthesis” Project at: https://mdhistoricaltrust.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/archeological-synthesis/

 

 

 

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.