The Right Way to Dig at Home

This article by Alexandria Archaeology staff appeared in the June 1989 issue of Preservation News, The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Page archived as of December 27, 2018

The Right Way to Dig at Home: How to find and save your underground heritage

by Pamela J. Cressey and Keith L. Barr

Overheard at a party:

Hi, Pam. We just bought our dream house. It feels wonderful to be surrounded by history-I can’t believe I’m actually living in a house that’s nearly 200 years old! We had to reconstruct the entire kitchen wing, and in digging up the floor we found tons of old dishes, bottles and bones. They were all broken, so we didn’t think you’d be interested. We just kept a few pretty ones for the mantel and tossed the rest. How are your archaeological digs going?

A telephone query:

Hello-my son has been digging up artifacts and oyster shells in our backyard for a sixth-grade science project-he’s crazy about archaeology and fossils! If we bring them in, can you tell us what they are, so he can write his paper? What? You think they might have some historic value and should be excavated scientifically? Oh, I’m sure they’re not important-our property is just an old farmhouse near a creek!

What do these lovers of history have in common? They don’t believe their property is important enough to preserve its "underground" heritage. Yet in both cases these families live on and change their own archeological sites. In the past, most building changes were additions: new wings, fill dirt and trash. Today we are experiencing major alterations to residential sites which also deplete, destroy, and irreparably damage information held for centuries in these historic properties.

Archeological sites are finite. They cannot be renovated, replanted or reproduced like old buildings or endangered species. The material evidence-artifacts, foundations, postholes, animal bones, wells, trash pits or even graves-preserved within the soil of your property are virtually the only tangible traces left of the actual occupants of your home. And perhaps there are clues left underground to previous tenants of your land-Native Americans or early settlers-which may not even be recorded in written history.

The "archeological record" is contained within your soil like pages of a book, albeit unbound. These pages, however, may be somewhat shredded and scattered. If the search is conducted carefully with contemporary archeological methods, there is a chance to reconstruct this record in conjunction with written documents, photographs and oral history. This process will transform broken ceramics and dirt into discoveries which add to knowledge about your predecessors and the development of your town.

How can you be a good caretaker of your archeological site? We provide the following steps for owners and occupants of historic properties:

  • Caution! Do not dig your own site without proper training. The results will be hazardous for history. Before you begin renovation, new construction or landscaping, determine whether your property is an archeological site.
  • Conduct an archival study of your property, focusing upon the names, social history and activities of the occupants; land use; dates and nature of construction and earlier renovation; footprints of buildings; and episodes such as fire or flood that may have affected the site. This information comes from deeds, wills, tax records, censuses, insurance maps and building permits. Produce overlay maps from different time periods showing the property’s boundary and building dimensions. Produce a chart showing which occupants and activities are associated with these different periods of your property’s development. You may do this yourself, or hire an experienced researcher.
  • Contact the state historic preservation officer (SHPO), state historical society or museum, state archeological society, anthropology department of your local college, or your city/county archeologist. Ask for assistance in determining whether your property has archeological significance. This requires excavation and cannot be done without professional expertise. Consultant archeologists may be hired, just like architects; or technical assistance may be provided from a government or college. If you make this contact before the archival research, you may be able to put these two steps together. Excavation should never precede the archival research, however.
  • If your property is significant, register it with the SHPO. Develop an archeological plan with a trained professional, avocational, or student archeologist. Check to be sure this person is in good standing. This plan is just as necessary as architectural drawings and specifications. It is a map depicting archeological areas and a strategy for preservation-actions, priorities and scheduling with your renovation steps. Meet with the architect contractor and archeologist to work this out. Wherever possible, leave archeological materials in place underground.
  • Follow this plan over the years in conjunction with trained assistance. You may become so interested you will pursue avocational training. Your site may be so important that a university professor with students will work with you for many years. If you or the contractors find artifacts, attempt to get the archeologist to remove them. Field notes and photographs should accompany all excavations.
  • Make sure artifacts and field notes are properly interpreted and curated. Nothing looks sadder than boxes of unwashed, decomposing artifacts sitting in somebody’s garage. These are the pages of history which need reconstruction and interpreting so that the story of your property’s heritage will be known. Donate the collection to the proper museum. Your SHPO or university can again help on this. Many students may be trained by washing, cataloging and studying your collection. It may contribute greatly to your town’s museum or a historic home museum in the state. Or your collection can be the catalyst for a new interpretive center for black heritage, Native Americans, maritime history or labor history. Ask about tax advantages of donating your collection.
  • Enjoy your archeological site daily by incorporating it into your landscape and home. Depict the old kitchen walls, well, or garden in your yard by above-ground treatments. The walls and well can be reconstructed above ground or outlined with bricks. The historic garden pattern can even be recreated if pollen, seeds and root forms are recovered from the excavation. One creative individual even turned his basement well into the focal point of his room with back lighting and a Plexiglas cover. These treatments will enhance your home. They will also preserve an important part of your property fro future generations to appreciate.

Pamela J. Cressey is City Archeologist and Keith L. Barr is former Preservation Archeologist with the city of Alexandria, Virginia. (1989)