Digging for the Past spotlights citys rich history


Alexandria has been included in the Oxford University Press series of books entitled Digging for the Past, an exploration of how archaeology identifies and preserves history.

According to Oxford University Press, Digging for the Past goes around the world with working archaeologists to explore the discovery, excavation and study of archaeological sites.

I have known Brian Fagan for quite some time, said Pamela Cressey, Alexandrias city archaeologist. The last time he was in town, we were having dinner and talking about the series, Digging for the Past, and he suggested including Alexandria as a representative North American historical site. The series already includes two North American prehistorical sites but did not have an example of an historical place. He thought Alexandria was perfect.

The book, which is written for young people in grades five through eight, begins its look at Alexandria archaeology in 1961.

Thats when a group of citizens decided to reconstruct Fort Ward, Cressey said. They didnt just rebuild an old fort but preserved an entire site and turned it into a park. I like to call that the Alexandria model because we continue to turn historic places into outdoor museums and that isnt being done in any other city.

While the city funded the project at Fort Ward, archaeology did not become a city department until 1975. Cressey, the first to hold the title of city archaeologist, came in 1977. The book takes us through many of our projects up to the work we are now doing at the Freedmens Cemetery, Cressey said. It isnt just about city projects, either. Developers are playing a large role in preserving sites. Carlyle Gardens, for example, is built on the site of the old glass factory, which is still underground.

Smaller sites
While such large projects as Freedmens Cemetery get a lot of attention, it is a smaller site which is exciting for Cressey. In the 100 block of St. Assaph Street, we found a house in which slaves lived. There, we found childrens toys, such as a childs plate and cup. The plate had sayings on it from Ben Franklin, indicating that someone in the household could read and that the parent was instilling American work ethic in the children.

We also found pots that would have held ink, telling us that someone was writing. It gave us some insight into the lives of these people who lived there in the 1850s, before the Civil War and before they would have been free, Cressey said.

While the focus of Digging for the Past in Alexandria is on its historical sites, there are also prehistoric sites here. The Alexandria Heritage Trail basically leads you through 8,000 years of history, Cressey said.

Digging for the Past is available at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum in the Torpedo Factory and on Amazon.com.