More than 5,000 objects recently found here at a construction site are telling scientists more about the occupants of this area before and after Camp Lee was established.
Preliminary findings suggest the artifacts are a mixture of the remnants from land clearing activity prior to the construction of the original Army camp, as well as items used by its first Soldiers.
According to Fort Lee Cultural Resources Manager Patty Conte, an archaeologist assigned to the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Management Division, the finds are valuable in providing insights to “help us better understand when, how and by whom the land was used” prior to being acquired by the federal government to construct Camp Lee in 1917 and thereafter by its first inhabitants.”
“There’s still a lot to learn about the land that became Camp Lee in 1917 even though it has been continuously built upon and expanded in the 100 years since,” she said.
Before the establishment of Camp Lee, Native Americans inhabited the area followed by European settlers who arrived in the early 1600s.
In the periods prior to construction of a cantonment in the summer of 1917, tracts of farmland dotted the area. Among them was land owned by Rueben Gilliam, whose family homestead was discovered here during the construction of Interstate 295. Artifacts from the property are stored at Fort Lee’s Regional Archaeological Curation Facility.
At the utilities infrastructure project site, the artifacts found include bricks, nails, fencing material, food, and soda and medicine storage bottles, according to Conte.
“The limited amount of information we have at this point suggests this may be evidence of a large burning event to clear the land to build Camp Lee,” she said. “The kind of artifacts we have recovered thus far are related to domestic and early military activity.”
Although thousands of items were found during the three-day excavation project, it wasn’t possible to further identify the site or know how many more artifacts were present.
“It is possible when we complete the identification of the site, we may find out that some of the artifacts are associated with a particular house, family or landowner,” said Conte. “Until we find the rest of it, we’re not going to know that.”
Once the site is completely identified, a determination can be made of its eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. That is expected to occur over the next year.
One building here – the Fort Lee Theater -- and 26 archaeological sites have been determined eligible for NRHP recognition.
Fort Lee’s Environmental Management Division – which oversees the installation’s Cultural Resources Management program – is responsible for the identification and evaluation of historic properties to ensure these irreplaceable resources are preserved for future generations.
“The most recent discovery was, in fact, made by archaeologists monitoring a new sewer line installation when artifacts and an area of discolored soil were observed within the trench being excavated by heavy equipment,” Conte said. “When this happens, ground-altering disturbance must be immediately stopped so the archaeologists can further examine the discovery to determine what it is and how it came to be.”
A number of laws mandate the protection of historic properties on federal property, Conte emphasized. When found during a construction project, the requirement to immediately halt ground altering disturbance in the vicinity of the discovery provides archaeologists time to carry out field work by digging, recording and collecting as much information as possible.
“In combination with researching historic documents, maps and photographs archived at libraries and courthouses, the recovered information, including artifacts, is further analyzed for clues which help tell a story about past events,” she said.
Some of the recently discovered artifacts may be displayed at the Regional Archaeological Curation Facility, located on 22nd Street.
Conte reminded those who work and live on Fort Lee that any disturbance of archaeological sites is prohibited by law.
“Searching for and collecting artifacts from federal property without a permit issued by the garrison commander is a violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act,” which can result in punitive actions to include jail time, she said. The installation also forbids the use of metal detectors.
For more information about the installation Cultural Resources Program, call 804-724-4434.