Piecing Together the Past; Archaeology Museum Gives Hands-On Work

Article excerpt

Byline: Gabriella Boston, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

At this time of year, the ground often is frozen, making digging virtually impossible, but the Alexandria Archaeology Museum still makes sure students of archaeology, whether children or adults, can learn about the art and science of historic digging.

On Fridays, for example, the museum, located in Alexandria's Torpedo Factory Art Center, features archaeologists and volunteers cleaning and cataloging some of the museum's more than 2 million artifacts. Visitors not only get a chance to see archaeology at work, but also can ask questions about preservation and history while the work is going on.

"We want to show archaeology in action," says Francine Bromberg, an archaeologist at the museum.

The "action" includes the process by which archaeologists identify what period an artifact is from (by looking at such things as material and shape as well as in what context the artifact was found) and how shards fit together to make up a whole, whether it's a plate or a cup.

In fact, the museum invites children to try their hands at putting together pieces of earthenware. On a table close to the entrance of the tiny museum, five place mats each contain dozens of pieces of broken pottery.

A sign next to the place mats says: "You be the archaeologist. Can you put these plates together?"

Some of the shards make up plates, others cups. The children use tape to hold together the cup or bowl they piece together.

"I think archaeology gives kids a chance to touch the past because it's so tangible," Ms. Bromberg says. "It's exciting to see and hold things that were made hundreds of years ago ... in the case of Native American artifacts, thousands of years ago."

The museum's artifacts, some of which are displayed in glass cases, include American Indian points that are up to 10,000 years old and teacups and beer bottles that are a few hundred years old.

Staff archaeologists, such as Ms. Bromberg, don't only have museum duties. They also help the city review building permits to make sure valuable clues to the country's past are not destroyed when additions or new buildings are constructed in Alexandria.

It was during one such review that Alexandria's first pottery studio was found in the soil of an Old Town resident's back yard, Ms. Bromberg says.

The first local potter was Henry Piercy, who moved to Alexandria from Philadelphia in the 1790s. When Piercy set up shop in Alexandria, it meant tavern owners were able to buy local kitchenware for the first time. In the past, everything had been imported, particularly from England.

Usually in summer and early fall, the museum conducts family digs, in which parents and children can work at an actual archaeological site for a day.

"Everybody has fun and learns something," Ms. Bromberg says. "Even the toddlers find something to do, even if it's just banging with the trowels. …