Really Digging Alexandria: Family Fun with Archaeology
Marshall, Toni, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
When thinking of archaeology, one imagines sifting through the sands of Egypt or forging through mud at the Olduvai Gorge, hoping to discover artifacts and treasures from the distant past. One might think of archaeologists in Alexandria - Egypt, maybe, but not Virginia - screening excavated dirt, but there they are - and having fun at the same time.
The site is not some ancient pyramid or tomb. It's the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, which sits high on Shooter's (or Shuter's) Hill, overlooking the Potomac River. There, groups of 15 to 20 diggers gathered recently on a cloudy Saturday morning to discover the site's history.
Some are trained archaeologists with the city of Alexandria. Others are students and volunteers participating in Family Dig Day, sponsored by Alexandria Archaeology, a division of the Office of Historic Alexandria.
"It's exciting to be the first person to see something that hasn't been seen for more than 100 years," says volunteer Andy Flora, 36, referring to the foundation of a brick wall he and a few other volunteers have been busy excavating since early morning. Mr. Flora, a geographer for the Census Bureau, is spending his second year at the site. He studied archaeology in college and now is a trained volunteer.
"It's more of a group activity - working together as a team. If we are not working together, mistakes will be made," Mr. Flora says.
He picks up part of a bottle from the Civil War period and points to a nearby hole, explaining that a small section of it at one time held a small, metal-lined container filled with charcoal. With careful examination, archaeologists may be able to figure out the use of the container, he says.
In the past, the site was home to several structures: a summer mansion built around 1781, a Civil War fort, and a golf course dating to 1900. The nine-story Masonic temple came along in 1932.
The site has been roped off for safety. After the dig, it must be kept covered to remain clean. Trained volunteers use trowels and rounded soupspoons to gently lift away settled soil. The dirt will be replaced at a later date.
The volunteers must be 16 years old and take part in an orientation. (Those under that age must be accompanied by an adult.) They put on orange labels that read "I Dig," and do just that.
Since the site is exposed to the sun, diggers wear hats and slather on sun block. Some wear close-toed shoes. Cold water is available, but some bring their own containers. Equipment is supplied, but gardening gloves were suggested.
Those participating in Family Dig Day only sift through the soil that skilled volunteers have dug away during the early hours. Sifting is just as important as digging. All dirt must be screened. It can produce pieces of ceramics and small objects.
But first, the "family diggers" listen to Ruth Reeder, an archaeologist and education coordinator for the city.
"You just don't dig in - it's private property," Ms. …