GPR at FX0704!

Many of the followers of this blog are aware that part of the historic team’s time is spent on a site known colloquially as the “church site” or the  “cemetery site”. Given the recent collaboration with  Below the Turf LLC, who came to utilize their GPR equipment there, it seems to be an appropriate opportunity to expand on some of the details relating to this intriguing place.

44FX0704 was first recorded in the early 1980s, though it has been known to the local residents for decades as the possible location of the fabled first church in Fairfax County, known as the Occoquan Church. If you have not yet been fortunate enough to attend a presentation on this subject by CART’s own Maddy McCoy, a Wikipedia article about early churches in Northern Virginia is here. Crucially, the current Pohick Church, at the intersection of Old Colchester Rd. and Route 1, is the third building used by the congregation. The second was somewhere on the property currently occupied by the Cranford United Methodists, at Old Colchester Rd. and Gunston Rd. The exact coordinates of the first location are unknown. Very few historic documents describing the Occoquan Church have been found, though there exist those that give weight to the local legend of it’s being within the boundaries of Old Colchester Park and Preserve. Specifically, a Virginia Act of Assembly from 1730 states that the vestryman for the parish meet “at the Church above the Occoquan Ferry”. That seemingly straightforward phrase could be interpreted several ways, from an elevation standpoint, to cardinal directions, to the flow of the Occoquan River towards the Potomac.

Of course, you know, that when documentary evidence is lacking or untrustworthy, you must rely on what is found in the ground for answers. The CART has been excavating on FX0704 for several months now, but its focus has been on the area where handmade brick and other architectural debris is scattered across the surface of the forest. Not far from the features you’ve learned about in previous blogs (F.82 and F.86), many rectangular depressions are visible. There are even several, likely roughly-shaped gravestones, scattered throughout this area of the site. With help from the boy scouts last weekend, the area was carefully cleared of underbrush and prepped for GPR inspection.

On Tuesday, CART and several volunteers including representatives from the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association, Friends of Fairfax Archaeology and Cultural Resources, and the Archaeological Society of Virginia were on hand when Dennis Johnson arrived with his equipment to conduct the survey.  Those present received a short introduction to the technology; you can read about it here. The point of this collaboration is to delineate the extent of the cemetery, and avoid excavating near graves. The CART has no intention of utilizing any destructive methods that could result in the discovery of human remains. GPR is a safe, efficient, and unobtrusive way to accomplish this goal.

Volunteers are introduced to the basic concepts of GPR

Soon afterwards, it was time to set-up the grid and get to work. Dennis set down an 100′ square using pull tapes, centered around an area with rectangular depressions. Additional tapes were pulled across the inside of the square at 4 ft. intervals, to establish control over the lines he walked. Though the boy scouts did a fabulous job clearing, the site is nonetheless in a forest: trees and undulations of the land (both man-made and natural) proved to be near constant obstacles to accurate readings. In an effort to minimize this issue, several heroic volunteers participated in an earth-moving venture, to smooth out the deeper depressions. To all the archaeologists out there: this was screened, sterile soil. Tarps to laid down before dirt, and all was returned to the backdirt pile once the survey was complete.

Transfer of backdirt from a deep depression to a old road trace

One the first 100′ grid was surveyed, Dennis moved to a second, third, and fourth. The last was in the vicinity of the features currently being excavated, and will aid the historic team plan where to place new units.

ASV NVC volunteers Isabel and Chris view raw data of soil anomalies

While the official results will come only after post-processing, compilation, and interpretation of the raw data, there was a real moment of discovery on Tuesday. As the second grid was being established, one of the volunteers, Chris H., happened to scuff a previously-unnoticed stone, lying flat on the ground. He noticed it possessed a perfectly curved edge, and brushed away some moss and rotting leaves to reveal initials carved into its face: “C.C.W.”!  Luckily, Maddy McCoy was on hand and rushed over to examine the find.

Maddy examines the foot stone, and explains its significance

It is likely a “foot stone” or a marker placed along one edge of a grave shaft, opposite the head stone. While not uncommon, they generally have few or no markings, leaving the more detailed epitaph to be displayed on the head stone.  Professional engravings were an additional expense, hence only utilized by a small percentage of the population.

Maddy’s assessment was that the style of the lettering, as well as the shape of stone itself, is similar to foot stones found in Aquia Church cemetery (with the death date of 1772)  and Dumfries cemetery (also known as the Quantico Church) with a date of 1807 – right in the time frame of Colchester’s most prosperous years! The final interesting aspect of this discovery is that the last initial, “W”, does not directly connect to the Bailey family, who owned and inhabited the land during the years mentioned above. The only other formal monument located in FX0704 is almost certainly that of Elizabeth Bailey, whose father owned the land. That monument offers the detail that Elizabeth died in September of 1769 – again, the same time frame of “W”.  It’s all very interesting, and everyone at the CART eagerly awaits the report of the GPR results.

Be on the look-out for another blog post with more photos from GPR day!

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About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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