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