By Erica D’Elia – Assistant Archaeological Laboratory Director
In late March, CART archaeology began a survey at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) over approximately one acre designated for experimental planting to restore native forests by the Fairfax County Park Authority, Natural Resource Management and Protection (NRMP) Branch. The project proposed by the NRMP Branch could have a significant impact on any cultural resources in the area. The proposed tree planting area at ECLP has a high potential for archaeological sites, including sites related to the Civil War.
Archaeologists traditionally dig small holes, called shovel test pits (STPs), on intervals, to help identify and locate new sites. Military sites are typically fairly ephemeral in nature due to a low density of artifacts. This means that artifacts, or the site as a whole, can be easily missed between intervals on an STP survey. In accordance with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources guidelines, metal detector survey, in addition to STPs, is the preferred method for locating sites of this type. Metal detecting is not exactly new in archaeology, but it provides an avenue to work with members of the local community who are interested in recovering and interpreting its history. Metal detectors have the advantage of being less time and labor intensive than traditional STP survey and allow us 100 percent ground coverage of the survey area.
Like any tool, a metal detector is most effective in experienced hands and archaeologists can benefit by working with local volunteers. Contrary to how many hobby detectorists work, archaeologists use metal detectors as remote sensing devices to locate artifacts using a scientific grid. The archaeology department at James Madison’s Montpelier runs several instructional programs each year teaching volunteers this methodology with the hopes of creating a network of metal detectorists trained to help archaeologists conduct survey work. For the survey at ECLP, CART was joined by Brian and Tony, two graduates of Montpelier’s program and Chris, a long-term CART volunteer. CART archaeologists first conducted an STP survey at ELCP. Only a small number of artifacts were recovered, mostly prehistoric lithic debitage (which you might be familiar with from previous posts by resident lithics specialist Shelia Koons) and evidence of a corner of a stone foundation; however, nothing was recovered from nearby STPs. This begged the question: does the stone foundation indicate a building or is it simply the boundary of a field? It’s hard to say without any associated artifacts.
Our next step was to metal detect using the baseline transects from the STP survey. We employed a sampling strategy where all “hits” were marked, but only enough were excavated to determine if they were historic artifacts or modern trash. All hits were shot in using our total station which digitally records their location on the survey grid and allows us to better understand the artifact distribution which guides resource management. This survey methodology yielded significantly different results! We did not find any evidence of Civil War activity, but we did learn more about the stone foundation. We excavated over 50 ferrous (iron) artifacts, mostly of nails. Although we haven’t begun analysis of these artifacts yet, a cursory examination identified several machine-cut nails, strongly suggestive of a nineteenth century context. An architectural hinge and fragments representing almost a whole cast iron skillet were some of the highlights of this project.
The data we have recovered thus far suggests that this was probably an agricultural outbuilding as we did not recover many domestic artifacts. It was also possibly a log structure due to the relative paucity of nails compared to the archaeological signature of frame structures. These artifacts are now in the lab for cleaning and further study. As a result of this great collaboration between Cultural Resources and Natural Resources, minor adjustments are being to the planting area. The naturalists will be able to rejuvenate what is now a marginal forest area. And because of the adjustments, the plantings will avoid impacting the vicinity of the stone foundation, leaving it available for future research.