Urban archaeology: local residents dig into their city's past

Archaeology, Pamela Cressey has found, is a great way to involve people in what has gone on in their own communities. Miss Cressey, city archaeologist of Alexandria, Va., since 1977, has helped more than 2,500 citizen volunteers become involved in digging up, documenting, and analyzing their city's colorful past.

The city, just across the Potomac River from Washington, was established in the 1730s by Scottish traders. In the early part of its 250-year history, it was a thriving colonial and federal seaport and the home of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. At least one of its black communities, the Dip, has existed continuously since 1802. And the city's historic core, Old Town, retains the architectural aspect of an 18th- or 19th-century town.

The growth of the city, however, was stunted by a mid-19th-century downturn in the economy, which lasted for decades. By the time Alexandria's urban pioneers of the 1930s (who are said to have come to the area with the Franklin Roosevelt administration) discovered the delights of restoration, many of Alexandria's quaint structures were sadly deteriorated. But they benefited greatly from the preservation movement that, over the years, has saved and revitalized many of them.

It was not until the last decade that Alexandria became the first city in the United States to develop an urban archaeology program - to begin to explore what lay beneath the sod and asphalt and what was hidden away in historic records and human memories.

Pamela Cressey, hired seven years ago from a university teaching position, had already convinced herself that what she wanted most was a career in public archaeology. She had a degree in history from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and another in anthropology from the University of Iowa, as well as an interest in archaeology dating back to the days when she and her father spent Saturdays in natural history museums in southern California.

College research at colonial sites in Old Mexico, along with interviews and oral histories with townspeople in New Hampshire, where she taught, not only reinforced this interest but helped her determine to work with the public. ''I had discovered,'' she says now, ''that the most pleasure I had came in sharing what I knew with others. I love responding to the natural curiosity of people and seeing the excitement in their eyes when I tell them what we are finding out about our past.''

When she told a friend what she wanted to do, the friend hooted, ''You're nuts. Who will pay you to do the kind of work you describe?'' But shortly afterward, she read a college newspaper ad for the Alexandria position of city archaeologist.

''The minute I saw this city and talked to city officials, I knew this was where I belonged,'' she recalls. Today her staff consists of two other archaeologists and one museum educator, plus, at any given time, at least 75 volunteers who are involved in all parts of the program.

Volunteers are given an initial orientation program, after which each decides the area in which he or she wants to work - documentary research, fieldwork, or in the laboratory. A detailed training program follows, with manuals and hands-on learning sessions, followed by a period of apprenticeship with an experienced worker. As their knowledge increases, they move into more responsible assignments, and some become supervisors of projects.

Right now, volunteers locate sites, take part in digs or excavations, do documentary research, tape oral histories, and take photographs. They also do artifact identification and cataloging, feed artifact data into a computer, and help set up exhibits.

Volunteers will also greet the 60,000 people a year expected to visit the new archaeological research museum, in a renovated torpedo factory.

The urban archaeology program, which has an annual budget from the city of $ 117,000, is part of the office of Historic Alexandria. Special foundation grants have been received for specific research projects, and the city has also appropriated additional funds for key events. Volunteer labor is valued at $60, 000 a year.

''Our mandate is to study, preserve, interpret, and educate,'' says Miss Cressey, ''and that we do with all the vigor we can muster.'' She does not advocate that citizens start digging in their own backyards, explaining, ''Our goal is to maintain things in the ground, because the ground and the things that are in it are our data source, our book manuscript. We dig only where we feel the material to be excavated has the most value to us. So we are very selective and choose to take pick and shovel only to those sites with the fullest documentary support. We do ask citizens to let us know when interesting objects come to light when they are digging up their gardens.''

Excavating an old well may sound simple, she says, but actually it is a very expensive and time-consuming process. ''We have found between 25,000 and 50,000 artifacts in each deep well, most of them waterlogged and requiring special treatment. We estimate that every hour of digging time requires from 35 to 50 hours of preliminary documentary work, plus the lab processing, statistical analysis, and storing of artifacts after the dig.''

So far, Miss Cressey and her staff of professionals and volunteers have much to their credit, including a historic study of the waterfront, the location of the last remaining section of the old Alexandria Canal, and a survey of past merchant and business life through a study of selected sites along King Street.

They have completed a city survey which identifies neighborhoods that have been continuous for at least 150 years. Their oral histories and excavations have helped reveal how and with what the people in these past periods lived.

''Most of Alexandria's citizens now feel more connected to the city's past,'' says Miss Cressey, ''and they have a feeling of great pride and of continuing legacy. Knowing how people lived here 200 years ago and the hardships they endured gives today's residents a different perspective on their own lives.''

Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. says, ''Alexandria has made a most effective commitment to history. We were one of the first American cities to establish an Old and Historic District and a Board of Architectural Review. And one of our most vital historical activities today is the Alexandria Urban Archaelogical Program.''

Citizens of Alexandria assumed a real advocacy role after six city blocks were torn down in an urban renewal project, and people noticed that the objects being turned up by the bulldozers were a very important part of their past.

The city of Alexandria has continued its preservation effort, not only because its citizens have demanded it through a variety of public hearings, but because of tourism. A portion of the taxes that thousands of visitors pay each year in the city's restaurants and hotels now goes for preservation and the study of history.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.