Alexandria Artifacts: History comes alive

This article looks at African American Archaeology in Alexandria viewed through the artifacts of Harriet Williams, a slave. This weekly column, which ran from 1994 to 1997, highlights Alexandria's rich heritage through objects in the City of Alexandria Archaeology Collection and other City historic museum collections. This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette .

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Alexandria Artifacts: History comes alive

January 27, 1994
By Pamela J Cressey

Alexandria is a community of history. Artifacts of Alexandria's multicultural population abound everywhere--under parking lots, in backyards, along prehistoric terraces overlooking streams, and even in living rooms and attics. The Alexandria Archaeology Collection consists of over 2,000,000 artifacts and ecofacts (seeds, bones and shells) excavated from more than 100 sites which span 10,000 years of human history.

Several thousand committed people have volunteered their time and expertise to excavating, cataloguing and studying these artifacts in the last 33 years. The City of Alexandria began its archaeological investigations in 1961 at Fort Ward. From 1965 to 1973 the Smithsonian Institution conducted archaeological rescue excavations along King Street. Since 1975, the City has continuously investigated its past through systematic excavations and research which have led to America's first urban archaeology museum, educational programs and publications.

A new exhibit has just opened in the Alexandria Archaeology Museum entitled TO WITNESS THE PAST:AFRICAN AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY IN ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA. The exhibit documents the findings from 16 years of archaeological study at 30 sites related to black life. Since 1978, excavations have occurred at 25 free black residential sites, two slave sites, and 3 manufacturing sites in the City.

The first African American site was excavated by the City archaeologists and volunteers in 1978 before the Courthouse was constructed on the 500 block of King Street. One of the 25 brick shafts, once used as wells and later as places for refuse, was linked through documents to a slave woman, Harriet Williams.

The eight foot deep brick shaft was full of household artifacts, particularly ceramic tablewares and glasswares, dating to the 1850-1860 period. Discovered in the upper excavation levels of the shaft were 145 tiny fragments of a Canton fruit basket with sloping sides of open fret-work. The porcelain basket was made in China between 1800 and 1830, and thus was 20 to 60 years old when it was broken and discarded. After many hours of precise work by conservator Carol Snow, the basket can now be viewed. It is 10.5 inches long and 4.25 inches deep.

How did Harriet Williams acquire this fine porcelain basket? Did it serve a different function in her home than in her owner's house just three doors away on South St. Asaph Street? In the next article in this series, we will find out more about her other artifacts that take us inside an urban slave's home a few years before the Civil War.

Pam Cressey is Alexandria’s City Archaeologist.

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