Tag Archives: Archaeology

Archaeology In A Digital Age

Virtual ColchesterWhen people think about archaeology, they usually think of digging and processing artifacts. That’s part of it, but the Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) is more than field and lab. CART is a part of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch, and it’s CART that is investigating Old Colchester Park and Preserve, a marvelous piece of history on Mason Neck in southern Fairfax County.

Marion Constante is at the forefront of that investigation, and her tool is a geographic information system (GIS), a technology that combines hardware, software and data to make sense out of geographic information. GIS helps make maps and charts and reports and helps understand the relationships of the things in those maps and charts. The county’s Virtual Fairfax map is an example.

Since joining the CART team, Marion has taken our GIS from a tool used to record and analyze to a whole new level. We now have the ability to see the historic town of Colchester from a perspective that has not existed for over 200 years. The project is entirely data-based and without conjecture. Marion integrated historic and archaeological data to create “Virtual Colchester,” for which she won the “Best Cartographic Product” award from the Fairfax County GIS and Mapping Services Branch in November 2013.

Perhaps of equal importance was her application of a programming language to create 3D projections.  Marion wrote a script – a tool to automate processes and tasks – to more efficiently model 3D structures found at Colchester. Spatial data with information about the size and shape of the buildings was linked with the necessary tools to create a model.

We can apply this script to archaeological and historical data from other parks, and the things we learn will make the Park Authority better at teaching visitors about the changes in Fairfax County’s landscape across time. The next step will be equally, if not more, challenging: to create environments for all periods of human occupation at Old Colchester back to the Early Archaic Period, approximately 10,000 years ago.

Marion has taken the information from a database about where artifacts were found at Old Colchester and written scripts that can be used with other scripts to create maps that show where things were found. These artifact distribution maps (similar to the one shown below) help us see where concentrations of artifacts were found, and that gives us a visual aid in understanding what people were doing at the site. The brighter colors on the map are areas of higher artifacts concentrations. Marion can create these “heat maps” to show the distribution of any artifact type or time period, and that helps us target areas that are of the greatest research value and ability to teach us about Fairfax County’s rich cultural heritage.

The Friends of Fairfax Archaeology and Cultural Resources are hosting a free open house at Old Colchester Park on Saturday, May 3, 2014, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Visitors will be able to tour the park and see Native American and Colonial artifacts from the site. Tours of the Town of Old Colchester are scheduled for 10 a.m. and 12 noon. A one-hour hiking tour of the park begins at 1 p.m. Old Colchester Park is at 10605 Furnace Road in Lorton, VA. There will be a shuttle bus from the parking lot at Mason Neck West Park, 10418 Old Colchester Road in Lorton. Information at 703-534-3881.

Author Megan Veness is the Field Director of the Colchester Archaeological Research Team, and co-author Marion Constante is a GIS Specialist.

Shared Stewardship Versus Stolen History

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The citizens of Fairfax County celebrate their history and take pride in the county’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.  For this reason, when a co-worker sent me a photograph published in the January 4, 2014 edition of The Washington Post, I initially responded with distress only later tempered by introspection.  The image depicted the dark silhouette of an adolescent contrasted against a snow-brightened landscape.  The caption indicated that the young man and his father were metal detecting for, “whatever the ground will offer us,” somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Fairfax, a county-owned and operated park.  I was worried that this activity occurred on publicly-owned parkland.  For, although metal detecting is allowed on private property with the expressed consent of the landowner, it is a violation of park regulations and a Class 4 misdemeanor to use a metal detector on parkland.  According to the Virginia Antiquities Act, metal detecting on a state-designated archaeological site is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The former is punishable by a $250.00 fine; the latter by a fine of $2500.00 and/or a year in jail.

Introspection came with the realization that otherwise concerned, well-intended, and respectful citizens sometimes engage in these activities because professional archaeologists and resource managers have been remiss in their responsibilities to engage and educate the public.  We have a poor record in returning to the community what we learn through careful, scientific study.  We often come across as boringly technical and aloof, at best.  At our worst, we are perceived as indifferent, snobbish, and elitist.  This is a huge disservice not only to our profession which relies on public support to continue in our roles; but, more importantly, rather than empower citizens as responsible stewards, oversights in public engagement can result in what is tantamount to the theft of our shared heritage.

Archaeology is a discipline of context.  We often gain our most valuable information about lives past through mundane items, casually discarded.  For an example, let me turn to the recent work of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s, Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve.  With funds derived from a land swap and dedicated to understanding our natural and cultural resources, CART has been conducting scientific archaeological studies at the park.  Recently they discovered a pit, filled and forgotten centuries in the past.  Archaeologists recognize this type of pit as almost exclusively the work of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Careful laboratory and special analyses were conducted on the artifacts and even the soil was carefully excavated from this pit so as to preserve the context of each and every find.

The dirt contained neither Civil War memorabilia nor articles of any inherent value.  Yet, the everyday refuse within the pit proved a fount of knowledge.  Simple hand-made nails demonstrated that a structure, perhaps a kitchen, had overlaid the pit when it was in use.  Broken pottery and tobacco pipe fragments indicated that it had been filled during the mid to late 1700s.  Meticulous methods allowed CART to find the smallest of artifacts, straight pins and tiny glass beads, likely evidence of a woman’s presence.  Thousands of miniscule fish bones and scales indicated specific species of fish that were being eaten.  Analysis of seeds revealed not only the composition of the native forest at the time, but also evidenced the introduction of cultivated species for both consumption and ornamentation.  In short, professionally-led archaeological study revived the landscape and life-ways of an enslaved Fairfax woman who lived over 250 years ago and who, until now, circumstances excluded from our understanding of our shared past.

These new understandings were only possible because of the application of detailed archaeological methods designed to preserve the context of even the smallest artifacts and seeds. We are able to understand the information from this feature because we can see all of the components together. Removing objects from this assemblage paints an incomplete picture, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Recent, popular television shows and profit-driven events have romanticized metal detecting, even suggesting that its practitioners are part of the preservation process.  However, the reduction of artifacts to a monetary value or conversation pieces deteriorating on fireplace mantles wastes a non-renewable resource.  Unless done as part of a professional study and under the supervision of trained archaeologists, it deprives the many of their past for the benefit of the few. It steals our history, robbing our citizens of that which inherently belongs to all; our cultural heritage.

Our work is only possible through the support and understanding of the public we serve.  Towards this end we attempt to give back what we learn through talks to school groups and scouts, the conduct of youth summer camps, college internship programs, and participation at public and professional events and conferences.  Perhaps our best outreach comes from our active volunteer program which is essential to our success and which we invite all interested parties to join.  It is our goal that all residents will understand, enjoy, and respect our heritage and through common interested become stewardship partners.

Written by Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority

Mysterious Timbers Unearthed At Sully

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You never know what might turn up. Miss Utility is always warning us not to dig without checking where utility lines lay. And as we well know, in this historic Chesapeake area, something valuable may be there.

There’s a new sewer line being laid near the new Sully Historic Site Visitor Center. On December 19, 2013, the Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch (CRMPB) received a curious and inviting message from the installation site. Senior Archaeologist Chris Sperling went to check it out.

After an initial reconnaissance, he set aside a day to record his findings. In the words of the cultural resource professionals, the excavation of the sewer trench impacted an archaeological feature.

In short, they found something.

What they found was another trench, generally oriented along a southwest – northeast axis.  The crew excavating the sewer trench ceased working after noticing metal roofing and wooden logs in the ground and contacted the CRMPB.  Chris found that construction debris at the base of the discovered trench contained logs and modern (within the last 75 years) roofing materials.  However, there also were large, hand-hewn timbers, including one with a mortise and tenon joint.  There were “voids” below the logs and timbers, which suggests that the trench goes deeper into the ground than what could be seen.

The critical part of this discovery is that the construction technique of these hand-hewn timbers has not been much used in the past 100 years and hasn’t been common for 200 years.  The timbers are inconsistent with the rest of the deposit, which also contained a 1960 penny.

Chris’ first guess about the area is that sometime in the mid-20th century a ditch or gully was filled to grade. There were areas where the logs, timbers and roofing materials were covered with plastic, and the plastic had approximately three feet of “clean” fill dirt placed on top of it.  The logs and roofing are contemporary, but the timbers must have come from a historic structure.  Where that structure was, and what it was, cannot be determined.

If we assume that the timbers came from a structure that was located on that spot, whatever was there likely was there in the early years of Sully Historic Site.

Sully Historic Site Manager Carol McDonnell noted that the find is around the site’s 18th century barnyard, so those timbers may have been ones that were saved, but it would be hard to place what structure they came from.  A total excavation of the barnyard area is among the future plans for Sully, but there’s no funding for it at this time.

The excavation crew did not need to dig deeper, so Chris asked for a layer of stone to be placed above the discovery and that the sewer be laid on top of the stone.  Although that means no more searching at this time, it also means Chris’ records will show where this feature is so that any future workers in the area will know it’s there before they start digging.

Chris’s early notes cite the excavation crew and their managers for taking the time to call the CRMPB office and allowing cultural resource staffers to do what was needed. As a result, something was found, and nothing significant was impacted.

For the time being, we know that some structure was there, and we’ve opened the door for someone in the future to have some fun digging up a piece of the past that isn’t going anywhere.

This blog was compiled from notes written by Fairfax County Park Authority Senior Archaeologist Chris Sperling.

Teens, Digs, Toys And Antiquities: A new archaeology program at ECLP

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Archaeology program participants may find artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, or even older.

Fairfax County teens and tweens with an interest in archaeology have a chance in August to spend a week side-by-side with a professional archaeologist excavating an historic site.

It’s an opportunity to get out in the field and do the real thing.

Two week-long archaeology programs for 12-to-18 year-olds are coming up at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly. Eric Malmgren of ECLP and Chris Sperling of the James Lee Center, home of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s archaeology offices, have prepared a small site for excavation, and it’s a site that almost certainly will produce multiple finds.

The chosen site is near a dairy complex that was established when the park was a family farm in the 1700s and 1800s. There probably will be broken pieces of equipment and pottery that were used around the dairy. ECLP Manager John Shafer thinks the potential for numerous discoveries is so likely that he says, “It’s going to be like they’re opening up a toy chest.” Anticipated discoveries would include artifacts that have not been seen in hundreds of years.

There’s a bonus. The site overlooks a clean spring, which means it’s an area that Native Americans may have frequented. That opens the possibility of finding artifacts that could be 8,000 years old.

Teens in the class will work with Megan Veness of the James Lee Center and learn about the entire process of archaeological work. They’ll take home some of the tools they’ll use, such as knee pads, a trowel and notebook. They’ll also gain an appreciation for applied science and cultural history through working as part of a professional team — and maybe even an appreciation for all those dishes washed and rooms cleaned at home. Washing and sorting artifacts is part of the job. The experience also includes learning multi-discipline skills such as GPS point and grid layout, excavating, documenting, cataloguing and proper preservation of the artifacts.

Instructors will explain the context and history of whatever is found and will make connections to the original people who lived at the site. The plan is to present the teens with an experience that could enhance college resumes and give them something to write about in their college essays. And it’s a hands-on chance to dig deep into a career possibility.

The Archaeological Dig Experience runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week of Aug. 5-9 and again from Aug. 12-16.  The program cost for Fairfax County residents is $425 and $440 for non-residents.

Puzzling the Past

History has a bad reputation. It is perceived as memorizing dates, dead rich guys, and dusty artifacts under glass. It is not dynamic and is seen as having nothing to do with our lives.

Historians are still unraveling mysteries at Historic Huntley in Alexandria.

Historians are still unraveling mysteries at Historic Huntley in Alexandria.

Yet that is very far from the truth. History is exciting, full of adventure, romance, tragedy, and comedy. When you visit any one of the Park Authority’s historic sites, you’ll discover all the excitement in history.

One way to look at history is that it is mystery. Historians and archaeologists are detectives trying to piece together what happened from clues. Our evidence is what people left behind. Sometimes our clues are documents, letters, diaries, and other written accounts. Other clues are objects like pieces of pottery, tools, trash, and even entire houses. None of these clues tells the entire story. What we know of the past we know by piecing all these little clues together. Yet we will never have enough clues to get a perfect picture, so sometimes we have to make educated guesses.

You can look at history like a jigsaw puzzle, one of those giant 32,000 piece 3-D affairs. Some of the puzzle pieces are still in the box, other pieces are under the bed or between the couch cushions, a few may be still at the store, and some may be missing altogether. Once we have collected as many of the pieces as we can find, we have to figure out how they all fit together. We may find some more pieces in the future to give us a more complete puzzle, but many of the puzzle pieces will always be missing.

Artifacts help archaeologists and historians understand the past.

Artifacts help archaeologists and historians understand the past.

Despite this, historians and archaeologists do what they do because solving that mystery or putting that puzzle together helps us all understand where we came from, where we are, and (in part) where we’re going. History is so important because it is who we are, and it connects us to a larger story. It is the story of us, and you, and me, and them. History roots us to place, and that is particularly important in a region like ours.

Examine history through your eyes

It is amazing to ask visitors to consider how the lives of their ancestors differed from the lives we live. Our historic interpreters engage visitors by asking them to help solve the mystery or put the puzzle together. We ask visitors to:

  • Consider how their lives would change if they lived in a different time
  • Examine the clues in a historic house to uncover how the family lived and built their home
  • Fire a bow and arrow and think about what the Powhatan ate, what games they played, and how they farmed
  • Make biscuits in a colonial kitchen
  • Solve (or piece together) how our ancestors do the things we do

 There are ways we make history come alive and make it personal. These questions challenge kids and adults. They make history fun.

Come to a park historic site, or look around your home. What mysteries and puzzles can you uncover around you? What mysteries are you leaving behind for future historians?

Written by Geoffrey Cohrs, historic interpreter and site coordinator, Huntley Meadows Park

Find more information about Fairfax County Park Authority historic sites, Historic Huntley, and historic rental sites.