FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 4, 2012) -- Borrow an archaeologist’s eyes, and you’ll see a different Fort Lee.
You’ll find signs of habitation by Native Americans. Traces of the small farms owned and worked by free African-Americans, both before and after the Civil War, also are scattered throughout the post. Colonial era, Revolutionary War and World War I artifacts crop up from time to time and include a gun barrel dating to the 1700s.
Regional Archaeological Curation Facility staff members explore sites on post to find and study artifacts that will help them understand the big picture of human life on this land. They want to share that with the public so they will host two open houses to celebrate Virginia Archaeology Month and the facility’s 10th anniversary.
The facility, part of the Directorate of Public Works, is a purpose-built structure – complete with climate controls, alarm and fire suppression systems and a back-up power supply – that houses artifacts for the post and nine other agencies. The building was shepherded into existence by Carol Anderson, chief of the Environmental Management Office, during her previous stint as the cultural resources manager. The offices and storage space are housed in a brick structure off Shop Road on 22nd Street behind the Quartermaster and U.S. Army Women’s museums.
The regional facility’s first open house will be Oct. 21, 1-4 p.m., and the second, with an expanded program, will be Oct. 23, 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. It will include a speech by Petersburg National Battlefield Historian James Blankenship (10:30 a.m.) and a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary (11 a.m.) followed by a reception and demonstrations of experimental archaeology (1:30 p.m.) and ground-penetrating radar (2 p.m.).
Visitors will be able to see some artifacts displayed in the facility’s exhibit room. On view will be two favorites of staff members. Archaeologist Bryce Stanley’s prize is a fluted clay pipe bowl that bears the high stylized face of a Native American or an African. This unusual find was discovered on the Liberty Chapel site. (A revolving, three-dimensional view of it can be seen at http://vcuarchaeology3d.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/effigy-face-pipe-animation/.)
Curator Amanda Vtipil’s favorite came from the Blankenship site on post. It is part of a clay wig curler. Once visitors know what it is, they usually see the resemblance to more modern equipment for creating wavy locks.
In addition to Fort Lee’s 121 boxes of artifacts, the facility houses more than 500,000 artifacts including collections from Langley Air Force Base, Fort Eustis, Fort Monroe, Quantico Marine Corps Base, Fort A.P. Hill, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, the Army Corps of Engineers, Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. There’s still room for additional collections.
Federal law requires archaeological surveys be conducted prior to construction projects.
All of the artifacts found at Fort Lee have a greater importance collectively than any single item that may be found, said Amy B. Wood, cultural resources manager.
“It helps us see the big picture,” said Wood. “The amount of time this property has (been) Camp Lee is just a little piece of the whole. We know there was Native American occupation going back at least 10,000 years. We know we have 17th century European occupation, 18th and 19th century, too. We’ve got World War I sites here as well.”
The artifacts recovered from Fort Lee’s ground tell “the whole history of folks who were here,” she added.
All of the shards of pottery, broken glass and bits of metal and bone come together to tell stories about the people who have lived here. For those stories to be clear, archaeologists need the full picture of where artifacts are found.
“As cool as it is to go out with a metal detector and dig something out of the ground, if you take it out of its original context, it really doesn’t mean much,” said Stanley. “Was there an actual battle here? Were there people camping here? Were they camping in the summer or in the winter?” These are questions archaeologists can’t answer with items isolated from the burial site they have been in for hundreds or thousands of years.
The federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act and Fort Lee policy make it illegal to disturb archaeological sites on post or remove artifacts from them. Use of metal detectors is banned on the installation. Anyone suspecting that he or she has found an artifact should leave it in place and call (804) 734-4434 or 765-7026.