Public invited to join dig

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette Packet.

Page updated on Dec 11, 2015 at 11:06 AM
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Public invited to join dig

March 31, 1994 
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Archaeological findings of early free Black homes in Alexandria excavated by the City of Alexandria and volunteers.
People often ask how archaeologists decide where to excavate and how we dig. Although the artifacts excite everyone, it is usually the process of doing archaeology that interests people the most. In Alexandria, the public has the opportunity to excavate on sites with the City archaeologists to share in both the process and the fun of discovering artifacts.

Volunteers are urgently needed weekdays to assist in excavating an endangered site in Old Town. While many people may have preferred to sit by their fires during this cold winter, spring is the perfect time to work on an archaeological site. But why would anyone come out to excavate slowly with mason's trowels and dental tools or screen hard Virginia clay to recover artifacts?

More than 3000 people have worked with the City of Alexandria over the last 17 years to excavate sites, study the artifacts and research historic documents. The current site requires urgent excavation before construction. How can volunteers help? First, volunteers start on a site by screening the excavated soil through quarter inch mesh screens. The soil is screened so that every small object, bone or seed is recovered. This is the best way to sharpen observation skills in the dirt. If you can find artifacts in the screens, your eyes become more discerning and then you can move to excavation.

When you dig archaeologically, your sharp mason's trowel is used with a horizontal motion, scraping the soil. This technique is quite unlike the standard gardening trowel motion of digging down and making a hole. Archaeologists excavate in squares, so that the objects and soil layers can be measured. Every square is tied into a site grid which has elevations measured from a bench mark. Thus, objects in the same soil layer can be identified as to their location on the site in two dimensions-space across the site and depth down into the site.

The current site offers the opportunity for hands-on archaeology for people that have always wanted to experience archaeology. It also provides an amazing opportunity to go back in time and sense the past. What do our volunteers respond when they are asked their reasons for working on the site? "It's the thrill of discovering the past." " You could be the first person to see and touch the artifact for 200 years!" One retired volunteer said, "Good exercise, fresh air, toughens the body, and companionship."

Archaeology volunteers have contributed more than 100,000 hours to preserving the City's past. People working this spring on the endangered site will have a sense that they contributed to preserving a precious part of Alexandria's heritage.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.