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Digging history at Shuters Hill in Washington

On Shuter’s Hill behind the George Washington Masonic temple, about a foot-and-a-half under the grass and topsoil, a time portal — and a multitude of stories — sits idle.

Excavations at Shuter's Hill The portal has nothing to do with manipulating the fourth dimension H.G. Wells once wrote about. This time machine is different. Shovels, a notepad and historical context are all archaeologists need to reconstruct part of Alexandria’s history from the ground up — literally.

The particular history of the Shuter’s Hill is somewhat mysterious but much has been uncovered since the city’s archaeologists began digging, albeit sparingly, in 1995. What we do know about the land’s history includes Native Americans who predate known tribal affiliations, a party-animal landowner and a man who produced rye for George Washington’s whiskey. Most recently, archaeologists were able to link the story of a slave whose job as a laundress required immense work and skill, to the land.

All of this information was deduced by combining physical evidence from the ground with documented records on the surface — the background that allows archaeologists to make sense of what they find.

“The artifacts in their context tell the story of the past,” said city archaeologist Fran Bromberg, who co-taught a course for college and graduate students at the site over the last couple of weeks. “Without the context of the time there is no story.”

Archaeologists have found from land records, photographs and physical evidence that the story of Shuter’s Hill has a recurring theme.

“Basically, everything burned down,” said Kelly Larson, a George Washington University Student, as she dug last Friday.

The first “European” occupation of the land began around 1781 when Alexandrian John Mills built a house on the site. He sold the property to Ludwell Lee, who grew rye that George Washington used for his whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, just before the turn of the 19th Century. Lee sold the land to Benjamin Dulany, who built a “grand mansion,” Bromberg said.

Dulany’s mansion, used to throw several soirees during his lifetime to suit his lifestyle, burned down in 1840. Bromberg and her colleague Steve Shephard found a fire insurance policy that Lee took out on the mansion before he sold it, including two annexes — a gardener’s house and 16-foot square laundry building — in 1797. It was one of several documents that they combined with other information to shape the context of the dig.

As they began digging, the archaeologists found thimbles, needles, and pins — items associated with laundry and sewing.

“We went back to our historical documents and combines them with the artifacts and a light bulb went off,” Bromberg said. “It was a laundry house.”

Bromberg and Shephard stress to their students the importance of context. Without historical documents, the thimbles would have just been thimbles.

“The general case is, to most people, this stuff looks like trash,” Shephard said. “That trash is what archaeologists interpret to understand the people and what happened at that site.”

So what can the laundry house actually do to help reconstruct the city’s history? A lot. They suspected slaves worked and lived — house wares and animal bones from meals were found as well — in the house and, because the lives of slaves were rarely recorded, the laundry house could fill in the gaps of slave life in Alexandria. From the quality of ceramics and the nutritional information of the food remains, archaeologists will be able to deduce how the slaves were treated — how their living and working arrangements stacked up to free blacks or other population segments at the time.

Bromberg and Shephard, while researching an unrelated matter, found the name of an enslaved woman, Esther, alive during the Delany family’s occupation of the Shuter Hill site. Her main skill was laundry. Benjamin Dulany, it turned out, was her owner.

“We can actually associate this structure with a real person, which is really so exciting to us,” Bromberg said. “And the laundry became extremely significant to us because, of course, the daily lives of slaves were not recorded like the lives of the elite. The site has become extremely important for us.”

A new house was rebuilt on the property and occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War, only to burn down again in 1905, creating more fodder for future discovery. The city archaeologists hope to uncover more of the site with the help of the Alexandria Archaeology Institute, a hands-on program for adults that teaches anyone interested — and willing to pay a fee — how to dig back through time at the site.

For the students like Chloe Raub, who dug into the ground last week for the first time, finding ceramics, animal bones and other artifacts from another lifetime was more than just course credit.

“Just not knowing what’s going to be under the next layer is really exciting,” Raub said. “It’s a pretty gratifying site. Some people dig and dig and never find anything.”

Source: Alexandria Times


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1 comment :

  1. Are you sure the DUlany Mansion burned around 1840. It is my understanding that Federal Troops burned it down to stop any possible spread of diseases borne by Federal Troop patients, which would mean it burned in the mid 1860's. I am related to Benjamin. Your article states 'Dulany' and on the next line stated 'Delany', which is an incorrect spelling. Have you found the small graveyard, Ben died in Baltimore at his mother's home and buried on the hill, several other Dulany's are buried there. Was there a name for the Mansion? Thanks


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