Locating, dating historic sites can be complicated

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Locating, dating historic sites can be complicated

June 16, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Last week I discussed how archaeologists determine whether a site still remains in the ground using The Mark Winkler Company properties as an example. Archaeologist Bob Adams worked for three years locating and eventually excavating a site along the gravel terraces near the Radisson Plaza Hotel.

The test pits Bob excavated with a shovel were small windows through the ground place every 50 feet to see if any prehistoric or historic artifacts were present. This Phase I level of testing documented that there was the possibility that only one archaeological site remained. Additional excavations in which the squares were dug closer together with trowels, referred to as Phase II study, located the boundaries and age of the historic site.

Dating a site can be a complicated task. The age of every artifact must be ascertained using manuals with dates assigned by previous studies. But what happens if the dates for the artifacts span a wide amount of time? What is the date of the site if some artifacts were manufactured about 1750-1770 and others in the 1810-1860 period? The key to the problem is the distinction between the term "date of manufacture" and "date of deposition". Deposition date is the year (or in most cases decade, half century, or epoch) when the artifacts were discarded or the archaeological site was made.

For example, if a house devastated by and earthquake in this decade survived as an archaeological site for the next 200 years, an archaeologist would be interested in determining when the house was occupied and destroyed. The artifacts in the home site might range in manufacture date over 200 or more years. Many people have objects which predate their own births, such as a family heirlooms and collectibles. To determine when the house was destroyed, and thus the archaeological site created, the archaeologist would find the artifacts with the most recent date of manufacture. In our homes today, this date could come from dated medicine containers, letter or McDonald's Happy Meal toys. The most recent dates provide the date of deposition.

Bob's excavation of the site yielded the first rural homestead ever recorded archaeologically in Alexandria. It was not a fine plantation, and there was little architectural evidence that the place ever existed. Melted glass, charred ceramic and wood indicated that the house had burned probably by 1870. The oldest ceramic artifacts date to 1852-1862. Three vessels - a pitcher, cup and saucer-all had the Panama pattern made in that nine-year time span. The latest glass artifacts date after 1868. The chimney bricks had been salvaged after the fire, based upon late 19th century beer bottles.

The two-room structure was built in two phases. A cabin was first built about 1800 with a brick chimney, based upon the concentration of wrought iron nails. Later, about 1830, a second wood room was added using cut nails. We may never know who lived in this cabin on the Terrett estate which encompassed more than 1,000 acres. The archaeological excavation has preserved the artifacts of people perhaps never recorded in written documents.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.