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/

Please join us for #SHA2016!

Did you enjoy #SHA2015? Please join us for #SHA2016!

The Organizing Committee for the #SHA2016 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology invites you to Washington, D.C., the Nation’s Capital, January 6-9, 2016! The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966.  Because of the synchronicity of these events, and the conference location, #SHA2016 will focus on the past development and future prospects of Historical Archaeology.  The #SHA2016 theme, “A Call to Action: the Past and Future of Historical Archaeology”, encourages us to consider the impact of the NPS and NHPA on the practice of Historical Archaeology.

Washington, D.C. represents both the Federal City and the District of Columbia, providing an exciting, dynamic environment. Washington, D.C. is not only home to policy movers and shakers, but offers rich local and national histories, long preserved and made accessible by its numerous museums and institutions. In recent years, Washington, D.C. has undergone transformations that have highlighted the culturally diverse neighborhoods that make up the city, for instance, the new and flavorful restaurants, bars, and local markets. We hope to see you at #SHA2016, to reflect on how far Historical Archaeology has come, since the early 20th century!

Tech Week: Underwater and Public Archaeology

Hello SHA blog readers and welcome to a third installment of Tech Week ! This week the SHA Technology Committee is thrilled to focus on underwater archaeology. But not just any underwater archaeology – this week’s bloggers are all concentrating on ways to engage the public through technology. Using technology to interact with the public is a particular concern for underwater archaeologists because the sites we study are generally inaccessible to all but the roughly 1% of Americans who SCUBA dive (the percentage is even lower in many other nations); however, we think this is a topic that should be of interest to all historical archaeologists. The public funds archaeology, the public loves archaeology, but the public does not always understand archaeology. New technologies are making it easier to better explain what we do and why it matters, and this week’s bloggers offer some excellent ideas on how to make the promise of technology a reality.

The week begins with a piece by T. Kurt Knoerl on using the internet to make connections to the ‘global shipwreck.’ As the founder and Chairman of the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, the premier online exhibit space for underwater archaeological projects, Kurt knows what he’s talking about. He argues that the internet should be used to actively engage the public and other archaeologists in collaborative projects.

The second post is by Kimberly Faulk (Geoscience Earth and Marine Services) and Daniel Warren (C & C Technologies), two leaders in the field of deep-water archaeology. Their blog discusses the recent Okeanos Explorer cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. While the technology involved in exploring shipwrecks thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface is amazing, their contribution focuses on something more important: making archaeology real to anyone with an internet connection. Their post not only discusses how technology can create a world of citizen scientists but also how technology can enrich the archaeologist.

Tech Week’s third blogger, Peter Fix, is an archaeological conservator with the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation  and is heading-up the conservation of the 17th century ship La Belle. Peter’s contribution breaks from the internet driven approach of the first two pieces and discusses the technology behind conserving an entire shipwreck so that it can be viewed up-close and personal in a museum.

Finally, rounding out our week and continuing the theme of active public involvement through technology Annalies Corbin and Sheli O. Smith of the PAST Foundation echo the call for active public participation in archaeology. The PAST Foundation uses anthropology to teach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), putting Annalies and Sheli on the frontline of public engagement. Their contribution, which looks to the future, is a fitting way to end this Tech Week.