Study of the past becomes all-consuming adventure

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Study of the past becomes all-consuming adventure

December 1, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Stoneware jar made by John B. Swan in Alexandria, 1813-1825, with cobalt blue leaves, is one of cookie ornament shapes at Saturday decorating open house at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Illustration by Patricia Cutts.
"Lick the dirt off your artifacts!", I thought as I listened to a graduate assistant at the dig explain how ti be a "real archaeologist". There I stood in 104 degree heat, covered with dust and perspiration, after excavating the first level of a nearly artifact-free 3 by 3 foot square.

After arising at 5:00 A.M. from a sleeping bag to splash cold water on my face in the dark, the mid-morning heat was jarring. I couldn't believe my ears. This was the final straw (actually only one of many over 6 weeks). We had to suffer with the heat, lack of toilets and showers, sleeping bags, no privacy, back breaking hours of work, rattle snacks lounging on rocks near the pathways, negotiating wheel barrels over hills, and now we had to lick stones!

"Oh well, anything for the sake of science," I decided. Eating a little prehistoric dirt wasn't so bad considering everything else we put up with. Besides, how else would we ever know whether a small stone was simply one of thousands naturally formed, or one actually the product of human manufacture--an artifact? The water we had was for drinking, not to be wasted on artifact washing.

This experience was one of those seminal ones in my life and career. In that moment, I had to make my choice of whether to continue on this apprenticeship into the past called archaeology or just chalk this dig up to a bizarre moment. Was I going to jump in and embrace this intimacy with my artifacts or simply do an obligatory taste-test to appease my field supervisor?

Well I had grown up making sand pies in my backyard, tasting their quality and hawking them to my parents, what harm could this do? I made my choice in an instant, and discovered that ancient dirt did not really have much flavor at all. I've been interested in all kinds of dirty artifacts as "food for thought" ever since.

For the next two Saturdays on December 3 and 10, the Friends of Alexandria Archaeology, are inviting everyone to indulge in a different form of artifact cuisine. Come to the Alexandria Archaeology Museum on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center from noon to 4 P.M. to decorate artifact cookies for the holidays. All ages will enjoy this event.

The Friends have made cookie stencils from several of the Alexandria Archaeology Collection artifacts, rolled the dough, and cut the shapes for baking. After viewing the real artifacts, visitors are invited to paint the cookies with icing, and take them home as ornaments. Each ornament is accompanied with its archaeological description. The event is free, and the Museum has wheelchair access. These cookies are not for tasting. So, don't lick them; cherish them. Call 703-838-4399 for more information.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.