Being on Diggers: Advice and Reflections from Montpelier

By: Matthew Reeves and Terry Brock

On Monday, July 20th, the Montpelier Archaeology Department appeared on the National Geographic Channel’s Diggers television program. This program has been an issue of contention for archaeologists and metal detectorists alike, but efforts by SHA and other archaeological organizations to work with National Geographic and the National Geographic Channel have led to a show that melds archaeology and metal detecting together. As participants in these conversations, and as advocates for the collaboration of archaeology and metal detecting Montpelier decided to put ourselves forward as one of a handful of archaeological sites willing to have a show filmed at our site. In this blog, wanted to provide some tips and strategies we used to ensure the filming was successful (you can watch the entire episode below).

First and foremost, we found that the production team, from the exective producer down to the film crew, wanted to cooperate with the goals we had for filming. In terms of the actors, Ringy and KG are both very intelligent folks who are skilled metal detectorists with an earnest interest in material culture, sites, and bringing the joy of discovery to the public, all elements we have in common. And finally, the newly hired archaeologist, Dr. Marc Henshaw, is a fantastic guy with great experience who serves as an excellent liaison between the film team and the project. With this said, we found the following guidelines as essential for a successful production.

Establish and Maintain Ground Rules


Ringy (blue sweatshirt) and KG (Green sweatshirt) attending one of the four lectures during the Expedition Program. Participating in all elements of the Expeditions was one of our caveats for participating in the show (Photo Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation).

Establish with the field film crew the ground rules. We had three areas we wanted to reinforce:

  1. that Ringy and KG would be shown as working within a larger team of archaeologists and metal detector participants–teamwork would be a tangible outome. We filmed this show during one of our Metal Detector Expedition Programs, and had the expectation that they would participate in the lectures, tours, and other elements of that program, including building relationships with our staff and participants. They did just that.
  2. that our crew would do their best to present the grid in a visible manner-in this case, we not only staked the grid with wooden stakes, but also pulled flagging tape between the stakes to have it prominently displayed.
  3. that Ringy and KG would only work in areas that we designated–no side trips anywhere outside the gridded area–we emphasized the only place we do metal detector survey is where we have a grid established–anywhere else is a strict break in protocol.

With these parameters clearly established, the film crew and the actors knew exactly what to expect—and this guided what the field producer looked for in terms of entertainment and improv from the guys–and in the end built methdology and teamwork into the shows storyline.

Prepare the Site

For preparation for the shoot, pick a site where you know you can get results in a short amount of time–that way you control the content of the project and the show. This is the reason we chose the stable–we knew we would recover artifacts related to tack material (horse shoes, nails, buckles, etc) and had a high chance of finding enough material culture to establish patterns. While the survey was real and the info we gained was new, we chose an area we had very high confidence in, and had poked around before.

Emphasize Context by Finishing


During the Expedition, staff used our total station to map all the samples taken during the Expedition, allowing us to have results by the end of the program. The total station was also set up directly behind KG during the entire show, ensuring its presence in most of the footage (Photo Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation).

Make sure that you can process the finds to the point to show the importance of provenience: in the field, we made sure we were able to complete an entire 60′ x 60′ survey block and had time to shoot the points in with the transit, data enter the field catalogue of items, and plot these on maps by the end of the week. This was of critical importance since the assessment needs to happen while the film crew is still on site, in our case, this happened the Saturday morning following the final day (Friday) in the field. Having a plot map with the patterns already established meant the assessment was more than just a glorified artifact display, but presented the data behind all the work carried out to record location.


Preliminary results showed a void in the area surveyed, providing us with solid interpretations about the location of the stable by the end of the program, and allowing us to emphasize the importance of context and distributional data (Photo Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation).

Communicate and Be Flexible

The Digger’s production crew clearly wanted to capture the elements we discussed—they just needed to get the results while they were in the field. Also, what is shot in the field has to well thought out enough to make sense to the editors in the office—these are two different teams, and the only communication that occurs between the field and office is the executive producer—so capturing quality shots, quotes, and messages in the field that flow together into a larger story is absolutely essential. In the end, know that getting results from about 3–4 days in the field that are suitable for a prime-time reality TV show entails a lot of work and preparation. Once the film crew arrives you have to be on top of your game with very little margin for error. For the production shoot we held at Montpelier, the staging of the work and results would have been impossible without having a trained and dedicated archaeological staff to assist through the process.

Over Emphasize Your Message


Staff and Expedition Members were briefed on talking points. Here, one participant is taped talking about his work on the site (Photo Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation).

The final item to realize is that while the production team is allowing review of content during production, there it is almost impossible to shoot new material once the film crew is done with the shoot. As such, make sure your message is caught on film—both in anecdotal clips in the field and definitely in the assessment. Review this message with your staff, and make sure it is said over and over again, whenever anyone is on camera. We talked with our staff and Expedition members about what we wanted to message, so that they were prepared when the camera was in their face. In the case of the final assessment, it occurred to me during in the middle of shooting how to play Ringy and KG off one another to make the point regarding negative data. What this required was complete immersion in the final product—both in terms of us (as archaeologists) and the production team.

Prepare Yourself and Your Staff


Learning how to collaborate with metal detectorists is vital preparation for the TV show. Here, Frank Juarez, left, is partnered with Seth Van Dam, an archaeologist from Ft. Drum Army Base, who attended the program to learn about our survey techniques (Photo Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation).

This is critical. We could not have done all the work we did without having a sizeable staff that is well trained in metal detector survey, in addition to a full expedition program that included 9 additional metal detectorists and 6 visiting archaeologists. We have been working with metal detectorists for years through our public programs, and even employ two metal detector technicians on our staff. We had no concerns about using metal detecting as a survey tool, the efficacy of our methods, our ability to work with KG and Ringy once they arrived on site, or with how to excavate, record, bag, flag, tag, and catalogue objects: our methodology is tried and tested, and our staff executes it regularly. The only thing that was new to us were the TV cameras. We made sure to prepare our staff and expedition members for appropriate messaging, language, and other elements so that they were all ready to be on camera.

If you haven’t built relationships or worked with metal detectorists before, then the television program could be a lot of learning for you and your staff all at once. We’d strongly encourage you to attend one of our upcoming Metal Detector Expeditions to learn our methodology and also how to work with members of the metal detecting community, particularly if you are interested in doing the Diggers Program. We have designed these programs to provide a space for archaeologists and metal detector hobbiests to collaborate, and, more importantly, to learn how to collaborate. Having confidence in the methods and understanding the community you are working with will ensure that you can focus on getting your message through.

Working with the Diggers program was an incredibly rewarding experience, as have all our Expedition Programs. In truth, it has made our Expedition Programs better. For example, having results at the end of the week is not ever something we have done before: we believe the entire Expedition learned more about context by seeing the results of the survey at the end of the week then by us explaining what we would be using the data for in the future. From a larger perspective, it is our hope that participating in the Diggers show has allowed the public to also learn about what archaeology is, and what the collaboration between metal detectorists and archaeologists can look like when done through empathy, collaboration, and hard work.

Diggers Done Right

They’re back!

Yes, the King and Ringy, that duo you love to hate will be kicking off the third season of Diggers, July 20th on The National Geographic Channel. What? They’re still in business!? All the other such shows – Savage Family Diggers,Dig Fellas, and Dig Wars, have all gone by the wayside. Curiously, Diggers has actually been a hit for the NGC. Even with that ratings success, things will be a bit different this season.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the National Geographic Society wants to win back its brand and they have turned to professional archaeologists for help. In cooperation with Half Yard Productions, the producers ofDiggers, both the SHA and the SAA assembled panels to review the rough cuts of each of the episodes for season 3. These panels made comments, on what they saw and these were often incorporated into the final episodes. They also compensated the panels for their time and effort. The SHA panel put this money ($3000) into the student travel fund.

So, what has changed? First, they have eliminated the dollar value assessments of the artifacts that are recovered. This has been one of the main objections from the archaeological community and we told the production company that it was a deal breaker if it stayed. Still, this was a huge concession on their part since valuation of the finds is the “payoff” on popular shows such as Pawn Stars, Antiques Roadshow, and Storage Wars. We will see how much it is missed by the non-professional audience.

Second, they have hired a new on-screen archaeologist, Marc Henshaw. Marc has a PhD in Industrial Archeology and Heritage from Michigan Tech. He owns his own archaeological consulting firm, Nemacolin Archaeological Services and writes an archaeological blog where he shares his insights into the everyday life and mind of a professional archaeologist. Accordingly, he subscribes to a holistic stakeholder approach to archaeology. His blog proclaims “that if you can’t make the archaeological sites important to the community, they will never be worth anything to that community either from a heritage standpoint or a preservation standpoint.” Seems like the right guy for the show and there is a chemistry developing between he and metal detectorists.

Third, archaeology is becoming a bigger part of each episode. Marc gets a respectable amount of airtime serving as the straight man to the antics the diggers. He is often shown discussing the research strategy, recording provenience and relating the significance of the finds at the end of each program. There are frequent text reminders that they have permission to search on private property and it is made explicit that the artifacts remain with the landowners or local museum/historical society.

Finally, they have sought out real archaeologists to partner with when possible. This has proven to be no small feat as most archaeologists were understandably reluctant to have them or the disruption of their cameras, on their sites. Still they managed to work with a few archaeologists this season and these proved to be the best episodes. In fact, the season begins with the boys volunteering at Montpelier and being shown the cooperative ropes by our own Matt Reeves (who has shared about his public metal detecting programs here before). It is worth watching.

Is it a good show now? That depends upon what you want. It is entertaining, the backstories and graphics are good, and they visit some interesting places. The boys are still over-the-top silly, but apparently that is part of their charm. And honestly, many of the shows on PBS have bought into the cult of personality (e.g. History Detectives, This Old House, Secrets of the Dead). Diggers may not be your favorite show, but at least I don’t think you will hate it now. If you do, there’s always CSPAN.

#SHA2016 Conference: Let’s Trend from the Field!

Good morning, SHA Members!  We hope you were able to submit your abstracts for #SHA2016 and that you are gearing up for an exciting Conference!  As the majority of you are undoubtedly in the field, this week’s #SHA2016 blog post focuses on you and your work.

July 24th is the international Day of Archaeology*, virtually hosted by the Day of Archaeology Project! The Day of Archaeology Project seeks to celebrate and promote archaeology, on a global scale.

The project asks people working, studying or volunteering in the archaeological world to participate with us in a “Day of Archaeology” each year in the summer by recording their day and sharing it through text, images or video on this website.

With the increase in social media use, this is easily achievable across various outlets. In the past, archaeologists have chosen to blog, pin, post, Tweet, Instagram, and YouTube about their #dayofarch experiences.  These experiences have ranged from large-scale public outreach events to profiles on artifact finds.  If this is something you are interested in, please reach out to the Day of Archaeology Project, to find out how to contribute!  Additionally, if you are a frequent social media user, run a search on past #dayofarch posts!

Washington, D.C. will be taking part in this year’s #dayofarch, with it’s 4th Annual Day of Archaeology Festival, hosted by Archaeology in the Community (AITC). Each year, AITC has hosted a large-scale festival, complete with numerous archaeology community participants and volunteers.  This year, it will take place on July 18th, beginning at 10am at Dumbarton House, in Georgetown, NW.  If you happen to be in town, please stop by!

Alternatively, consider virtually participating in #dayofarch, July 24th! As we are all currently scattered in the field, promoting each other via social media offers a great opportunity to stay connected and be supportive, during the busy season.  Not to mention, a great opportunity to reach the masses.

Let’s get trending!

*Not to be confused with the International Archaeology Day, in October!

7 Archaeological Things to See and Do in Washington D.C.

Reminder: June 30th is the last day to submit your #SHA2016 conference abstract!

Last week, we started posting about Things to Do in Washington, D.C., so that you may begin planning for your #SHA2016 trip!  This week’s blog post provides another list of various, exhibits and research centers.  Whether you wish to play tourist or conduct research, we suggest you check out our list, below!

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

If you are interested in learning more about the urban development of Washington D.C., a visit to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. is a must. The Carnegie Library, located in Mt. Vernon Square, offers a variety of exhibits exploring the history of the city and the history of the city’s inhabitants.  The “Window to Washington” exhibit depicts the city’s transformation from rural landscape into a modern metropolis. Additionally, the library and collections offer ample resources for researchers to study the “city’s physical landscape as well as the families, organizations, businesses, neighborhoods, religious institutions and other communities that comprise Washington, D.C.”

Free of Charge

Check it out:

Sewall-Belmont House

Just a block northeast of the U.S. Capitol is a museum dedicated to history of the fight for women’s rights. The Sewall-Belmont House museum is owned by the National Woman’s Party, and displays their extensive collection of objects that document the story of the women’s suffrage movement. The collection features thousands of books, scrapbooks, political cartoons, textiles, photographs, organizational records and other artifacts “produced by women, about women.” This offers another wonderful resource for historical archaeologists.

$8 for a Guided Tour

Check it out:

The Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle) Located on the National Mall, the beautiful mid-nineteenth century Gothic-Revival Smithsonian Institution Building now houses the Smithsonian’s administrative headquarters, but the ‘Castle’ also contains several exhibits celebrating the institution itself, funded by James Smithson. These exhibits look at the history of the Institution, and visitors can see selected objects from all of the Institution’s museums.

Free of Charge

Check it out:  

Fords Theater

The fateful night of April 14th, 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Fords Theatre, is commemorated at Ford’s Theatre Museum. Visitors may take a self-guided tour around exhibits that explore Lincoln’s presidency, up until the night of his death.  The collection features textiles, documents, and artifacts of Lincoln’s, and, at the Center for Education and Leadership, an exhibit examines the aftermath and impact of Lincoln’s assassination, on the United States.

$2.50 for a self-guided tour

Check it out:

Clara Barton Missing Soldier’s Office Museum

Only recently rediscovered, the Clara Barton Missing Soldier’s Office Museum is the former residence and office of Clara Barton during and following the Civil War. Located on 7th Street in NW, the CBMSOM offers a stark and realistic history of the aftermath of the Civil War, through the efforts of Barton to find and identify missing soldiers.

Check it out:  

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Owned and operated by the National Park Service, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is the last home of Frederick Douglass.  Douglass lived in Cedar Hill, SE from 1878 to 1895, when he passed away.  The house museum does well to present and interpret Douglass’ impressive and impassioned political career, in our nation’s capital. The house museum offers an extensive and intriguing collection detailing Douglass’ vision, mission, and lifestyle during the latter 19th century.

Check it out:

Last but most certainly not least! 

Before coming to #SHA2016, be sure to take the virtual archaeology tour of Washington, D.C.!

Check it out:

5 Archaeological Things to See and Do in Washington D.C.

Remember, the last day to submit your #SHA2016 conference abstract is June 30th, 2015. See our previous blog post with the Call for Papers:

As we have seen in the last several posts, Washington D.C. and it’s surrounding area is a thriving place for history and archaeology. Archaeologists are doing important work engaging the public and interpreting the past of the nation’s capital. When we all travel to D.C. for #SHA2016 there are plenty of places to explore that capture the essence of this area’s heritage. Below, are five places to visit:

The National Museum of the American Indian

A new exhibit entitled “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World” opens at the Museum of the American Indian this September. What looks to be an incredible exhibit focuses on indigenous cosmologies, introducing the worldviews and cultural philosophies of eight communities all over the western hemisphere. This exhibit will run until October 2017 and along with the many other feature collections at the Museum, is a must see during our stay in Washington D.C.

Check it out:          Free of Charge

Alexandria Archaeology Museum

Located just a metro ride away, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum features exhibits highlighting their excavations of The Lee Street Site, the Green Furniture Factory, and the Ashby household. The museum also features hands-on-activities for adults and children alike, and the space also doubles as a public laboratory. You can also get information to walk the Alexandria Heritage Trail, which is a 23-mile walking and bike tour that takes you through 110 historical and archaeological sites representing the history of Alexandria.

Check it out:       Free of Charge

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress houses millions of artifacts and archives that, as archaeologists, we know are important resources. The Museum features exhibits commemorating the history of the Library, the architecture of the Thomas Jefferson building, and its celebrated holdings, including the Gutenberg Bible. You can join a one-hour walking tour of the historic building or enjoy a self-guided tour. Definitely take time to explore the reading rooms, and even take an extra day to use the research centers to examine the Library’s archival materials for your own research.

Check it out:          Free of Charge


The National Geographic Museum

If you decide to make a longer trip to Washington D.C., make sure to stop by the National Geographic Museum. Ending January 3rd, the “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology” exhibit juxtaposes real archaeological artifacts with a collection of film materials from the movie. How many of us get asked if archaeologists are like Indiana Jones, well this seems like an exhibit that explores the difference! If you can’t make this exhibit, the National Geographic Museum showcases their stunning photography from all over the world.

Check it out:

Dumbarton Oaks

Located in Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is a research institution with collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. The House collection showcases the historic interiors with Asian, European, and American artworks and interior furnishings donated by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss between 1940 and 1969. Docent-led tours take place every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 3:00 pm, but the Museum is open from 11:30 to 5:30 for self-guided tours.

Check it out:        Free of Charge

Throughout the summer we will be linking to more “archaeological” sightseeing opportunities in Washington D.C.

Publication in just…. How many easy steps?

This past January I had the pleasure of attending the annual society conference in Seattle, Washington. As usual, the conference was an amazing opportunity to learn about current research taking place in the field, network with colleagues and potential employers, as well as let loose and have a little fun at the annual dance on Friday night. In addition to this business as usual, I had the amazing opportunity to chair a panel discussion focused on publishing that was geared specifically towards students and recent graduates. With the help of Jennifer Jones, Nicole Bucchino and Mary Petrich-Guy, we were able to assemble an all-star panel of people from various universities, publishing companies and research institutions, who were able to answer all of our burning questions on the art of publishing.

Despite taking place at 8:30am on Saturday morning, the panel discussion had an excellent turnout and the panelist were lively and eager to answer our questions. Due to our focus audience, many of our questions focused on some of the basic ins and outs of publishing. How do I get my work out there for publication? What medium of publication (journal article, edited volume, blog, etc.) is best for me? How do I cope with rejection? Fortunately in this panel discussion I was the one asking the questions and our panelists came prepared with excellent answers. While I dont have space to recap the entire panel here, I would like to share some of the major points I took home points from panel.

First off, all panelists unanimously agreed that the act of simply writing was important. Such an elementary step may seem obvious to some, because you cant publish something that you havent written. However this all-important step is one of the most difficult steps to accomplish. One panelist suggested that devoting one hour to writing every day was a good start, while another advised that writing 1,000 words a day was an admirable goal. So step #1 to publication? Write. Simple, right? Well sure, but write what exactly? Again, panelists were in agreement on this one too; their suggestion was to write about what you know and to tailor your publication for a medium that is appropriate for your target audience. Because of this, the form a publication will take depends on the program of study, degree, career path and the goal of the publication. So, how to choose? Journal article? Single author or co-author? Chapter in an edited volume? Article in a newsletter? Blog? Fortunately, I have some very good news for you here. Our panelists were all in agreement that there is no such thing as a bad publication. I thought this was particularly interesting given that some of the newly emerging electronic and open access publication mediums (like Academia, for example) make publication a little easier perhaps, or at least more accessible to students than some of the more traditional publication mediums. However, after a lengthy discussion of the issue the panelists were still in agreement and all of the aforementioned mediums were given the thumbs-up for pursuit.

Moderating this panel discussion was a truly enjoyable experience and would like to thank Charles Ewen, Annalies Corbin, Teresa Krauss, Carol McDavid and Doug Rocks-Macqueen for graciously participating in our panel. We are currently putting together our topic for next years panel, so please stay tuned!

Archaeology in the Community: Stepping up and Reaching out

This week’s #SHA2016 blog post highlights Archaeology in the Community, a nonprofit, archaeological outreach program serving the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area!  Read below to learn more about AITC, and please visit their website, Facebook, and Twitter pages!

We are Archaeology in the Community, and we LIVE to bring archaeology to the public! In 2006, AITC founder Dr. Alexandra Jones noticed that many of the young students in her Washington, D.C. neighborhood had never heard of archaeology, let alone met an archaeologist. As a trained archaeologist and educator, Dr. Jones was inspired to engage young people within her community and teach them the importance of archaeology.

The program she created, Archaeology in the Community (AITC), allowed students in her community the unique opportunity to learn about their families’ histories and their community’s past from an archaeologist who lived around the block. Dr. Jones began creating several customizable educational programs to teach archaeology in alignment with school curricula. These programs gained momentum across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia and, in 2009, AITC became a chartered 501(c)3 nonprofit that promotes and facilitates the study and public understanding of archaeological heritage.

AITC ‘s overall goal has been for “us”—the students, teachers, archaeologists, field techs, community members, curators, artists, and activists—to step up and participate in the archaeological conversation. Our voices are crucial to the health of the field. As Jennifer McKinnon writes in her own SHA blog post, “It Takes A Village to Build a Trail”:

…No amount of research can prepare one for the diversity in meaning and importance of heritage to a community; one member has a completely different understanding of a shared bit of heritage from the next member. And it is important to incorporate as many of those voices as possible…No matter how well-funded, presented or shiny an idea is, if a community isn’t behind it, it has no worth.”

By consistently reminding our friends, our families, our community, that every artifact and site can help connect us to a particular day in history, a specific person, a local movement, a policy, and/or the global stage, we achieve our goal. Since 2009, AITC has helped increase community awareness of the benefits of archaeology and history through public events, enrichment programs, as well as provided professional development to college students interested in pursuing careers in archaeology.

At AITC, we create truly unique programs where the larger community and we can join into the conversation about archaeology through various mediums; art, food, music, written word and traditional archaeology.  All artifacts, no matter how seemingly trite, embody economic, social, political and spiritual stories. AITC has partnered with educational institutions, cultural establishments, and community organizations to bring this to fruition, and has since expanded our social media presence to reach the general public.

Students write questions for archaeologists.

Students learn the basics of excavation.

Day of Archaeology Festival 2014

Please visit our website and our Facebook and Twitter pages for more information and a look into some of our public events! And, if you are in town July 18th, come join us for Day of Archaeology Festival, at Dumbarton Oaks!

New HA Thematic Issue: The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

This post was prepared by Rebecca Allen, SHA Associate Editor,
ESA Cultural Resources Director

The first issue of Historical Archaeology, 2015, Vol. 49, No. 1, will soon hit your mailboxes, if it is not already in your hands. Dr. Barbara Voss (Stanford University) is the thematic issue’s guest editor for ‘The Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America.’ This issue was born out of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. It is part of an effort to recognize the workers’ contributions in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the first transcontinental railroad, constructed from 1865 to 1869, that stretched from California to Iowa across some of the country’s most challenging terrain. To put this topic in perspective, I invite you to view a series of videos on the subject.

Display at Sacramento Railroad Museum, workers at Donner Summit (photo by R. Allen)

Dr. Gordon Chang (Professor of History, Stanford University) talks about his research, his perspective as an Asian American, and the creation of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. Dr. Chang states that the railroad workers are underrepresented in the documentary record. Although they appear in railroad payroll records, and are occasionally noted in newspaper accounts, no extant first-hand accounts from Chinese railroad workers have been found. Working with Drs. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fisken, Barb Voss helped to organize the Archaeology Network that stems from this initiative. Dr. Voss gathered together a roster of archaeologists who have worked on these or similar labor camps, and challenged archaeologists to offer a fuller picture of the Chinese railroad worker experience.

Chinese Railroad Workers Project Introduction Video from Chinese Railroad Workers on Vimeo.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project goals are further discussed in this introductory video featuring co-directors Gordon Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. While focused on the history and archaeology of 19th century railroad workers, the Project touches on important themes in the present-day globalized economy. As Fishkin notes, “China and the U.S. have been intertwined for over 150 years. Right now, especially when a lot of goods are being created through work on both sides of the Pacific, and migrant labor is a factor in shaping the products that we use both in China and the U.S., understanding how this first massive force of migrant laborers shaped both of our countries…holds lessons which are relevant to us today.

The Society for Historical Archaeology established the Overseas Chinese Research Group at their annual meeting in 1969, and published the first thematic issue devoted to Overseas Chinese archaeology in 2008 (HA, Vol. 42, No. 3, find it on our Publications Explorer). Researchers have learned and continue to learn the importance of working with the migrants’ descendants, regional and national heritage groups, and engaging historical and historian’s perspectives. This integration of approaches expands and explores the study of marginalized populations. The contribution of Chinese railroad workers is starting to be recognized – they were recently inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor Hall of Fame – as seen in the above video.

Historical archaeology has the unique opportunity to bring dimension and depth to the railroad workers’ history, to explore topics of daily life and economic networks, and to create studies that trace workers’ experiences as they encountered and adapted to new environments and landscapes. Historical archaeology adds depth and nuance to topics of labor, economic, and social histories of the American West, made possible by the completion of this first transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Historical Archaeology, 2015, Vol. 49, No. 1 represents the contribution of more than two dozen authors and researchers. It highlights several archaeological sites directly related to the transcontinental railroad (Donner Summit, California and Promontory Summit, Utah, as well as the contribution of workers after the first transcontinental railroad was completed, with articles on Virginia & Truckee Railroad camps and Mono Mills in California, Carlin, Nevada, and Montana. Topics of bioarchaeology, health practices, habitation, zooarchaeology, and the materiality of everyday life expand the view of workers’ experience. The volume ends with commentary and a call to embrace the new direction of multidisciplinary approach and multi-ethnic considerations. I encourage you to pick up this thematic issue, and read it soon.

Volume contents

Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Fragments of the Past: Archaeology, History, and the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America

Barbara L. Voss, The Historical Experience of Labor: Archaeological Contributions to Interdisciplinary Research on Chinese Railroad Workers

Paul G. Chace, Introductory Note to Chace and Evans’ 1969 Presentation, and reprint of 1969 SHA presentation, Celestial Sojourners in the High Sierras: The Ethno-Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers (1865−1868)

R. Scott Baxter and Rebecca Allen, The View from Summit Camp

John Molenda, Moral Discourse and Personhood in Overseas Chinese Contexts

Michael R. Polk, Interpreting Chinese Worker Camps on the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah

Lynn Furnis and Mary L. Maniery, An Archaeological Strategy for Chinese Workers’ Camps in the West: Method and Case Study

Charlotte K. Sunseri, Alliance Strategies in the Racialized Railroad Economies of the American West

Timothy Urbaniak and Kelly J. Dixon, Inscribed in Stone: Historic Inscriptions and the Cultural Heritage of Railroad Workers

Marjorie Akin, James C. Bard, and Gary J. Weisz, Asian Coins Recovered from Chinese Railroad Labor Camps: Evidence of Cultural Practices and Transnational Exchange

J. Ryan Kennedy, Zooarchaeology, Localization, and Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

Sarah Christine Heffner, Exploring Health Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

Ryan P. Harrod and John J. Crandall, Rails Built of the Ancestors’ Bones: The Bioarchaeology of the Overseas Chinese Experience

Mary Praetzellis and Adrian Praetzellis, Commentary on the Archaeology of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America: Where Do We Go from Here?

Sue Fawn Chung, Forgotten Chinese Railroad Workers Remembered: Closing Commentary by a Historian

Reflections on Archaeology in the District of Columbia

Today’s #SHA2016 blog post is a repost by Charlie LeeDecker, who recently retired from the Louis Berger Group’s Washington, D.C. office, in 2014. As the D.C. Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office notes, Mr. LeeDecker spent the last 30 plus years conducting archaeological investigations for development projects and as a consulting archaeologist for federal agencies. He has worked on dozens of projects and in every ward of the District. On May, 6, 2015, Mr. Charlie LeeDecker received a District of Columbia Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation (HP) in the category of Archaeology for his body of work in the District. The post is his reminiscences on a career that focused on the buried history of our nation’s capital.

Original Blog Post by Charlie LeeDecker

Washington, D.C., is one of the world’s greatest cities, and it’s been a great privilege to pursue a career in archaeology here, working alongside a large community of talented, passionate, and creative historic preservation professionals. One of my long-time professional goals has been to gain greater visibility for city’s archaeological resources. When I look at an old building, a landscape or even a parking lot, I want to see beyond what is immediately visible, and learn how this particular place came to be what it is today, how it developed through history, and what can we learn from the values, struggles, and daily lives of the people who lived and worked here generations ago. The archaeological record is mostly hidden from view, especially in urban areas, and sometimes when we look below the surface we find amazing stories that entertain, enlighten, and enrich our understanding of how our city came to look like it does today.

The city’s natural waterways — the Anacostia River and Potomac River waterfront areas, even the valley of Rock Creek and the smaller tributaries that feed these waterways – were the first places settled by European colonizers, the sites of our earliest industries, and the favored locations for the camps and villages of Native Americans that lived here for thousands of years before the first European explored the Chesapeake. While these areas contain the richest record of cultural development, they area also the most challenging to investigate archaeologically. In these areas, the natural or historic landscape has been layered below occupied buildings, pavement, formal landscapes, and massive amounts of fill soils that are occasionally contaminated with industrial waste.

I’ve had the privilege of working for many years in the Washington Navy Yard and the Navy Yard Annex (now known as the Southeast Federal Center). First established in 1799, the Navy Yard has played an important role in our national security and the development of military technology, and the historical significance of the Navy Yard is recognized by multiple historic districts, including a National Historic Landmark designation. We know from archival sources that the Navy Yard might include an archaeological record of the site’s early industrial history, especially shipbuilding and ordnance development. But opportunities to conduct archaeological investigations in the Navy Yard are limited by factors such as a high water table and nearly ubiquitous occupied buildings and pavement.

The relocation of Naval Sea Systems (NAVSEA) Command to the Navy Yard required rehabilitation of many historic structures, along with demolition of some buildings and new construction. Impacts to the historic districts and buildings were evaluated prior to construction, but archaeological work was deferred until the construction phase. There are serious risks with this approach – risks that archaeological resources might be destroyed without adequate documentation, and risks that archaeological work might cause delays to the construction schedule. Managing these risks required an unusual level of partnership between the construction and archaeological teams, but ultimately, the risks were rewarded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Archaeological documentation in the interior of Building 104 at the Washington Navy Yard, during rehabilitation for the NAVSEA project

Archaeological documentation in the interior of Building 104 at the Washington Navy Yard, during rehabilitation for the NAVSEA project

Some of the best opportunities for archaeological work occurred during the rehabilitation of historic buildings, after the interiors were gutted and the floor slabs were removed. At Building 104 we were able to document remains of the Brass Gun Factory, including features associated with furnaces and a casting pit. At another site, we found massive furnace foundations associated with the New Ordnance Foundry, a structure built during the Civil War to cast large, smooth bore cannon cast that were formed in a distinctive “soda bottle” shape, known as the Dahlgren cannon. We also documented remains of the West Shiphouse, a structure built around 1825 that was used for repair of 19th-century naval vessels. Reaching seven stories in height and extending over an area of roughly 100×300 feet, this shiphouse was one of the most prominent structures along the lower Anacostia River, visible in many nineteenth-century views of the city.

Much of my work over the last 10 years has been in and around the parklands in the city’s monumental core area, including the National Mall, the Ellipse, West Potomac Park, and the Washington Monument grounds. Historically, these iconic landscapes were originally low-lying tidal flats and open water at the mouth of Tiber Creek, a tributary of the Potomac that disappeared long ago. For thousands of years, Native Americans camped along the banks of the Tiber, and after the City of Washington was established in 1790, the creek was transformed first into a canal, then a foul sewer that carried the city’s waste into the Potomac. Tiber Creek and its banks were filled during the nineteenth century. Some of the filling was a result of efforts to improve the land around the White House but most of the fills – millions of cubic yards – was deposited during efforts to maintain the river’s navigation channels and control flooding that ravaged the city.

Some of the most interesting finds were unearthed along 17th Street. One of these was a wharf built in 1807 at the foot of 17th Street where it extended into Tiber Creek. The 17th Street Wharf was a shipping point for the early city, its importance growing after 1833, when it became a hub connecting the Washington City Canal and the Washington Branch of the C&O Canal. The wharf disappeared in 1902 when 17th Street was extended after land reclamation had been completed on Potomac Flats.

Documentation of the original foundation of the Lockkeeper's House at 17th Street; the foundation wall is 11.5 feet below present grade and was preserved in place during a sewer line replacement project.

Documentation of the original foundation of the Lockkeeper’s House at 17th Street; the foundation wall is 11.5 feet below present grade and was preserved in place during a sewer line replacement project.

The Lock Keeper’s House that stands at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue gives a hint of how different today’s landscape is from that of the 19th century. The C&O Canal Extension followed the shoreline of the Potomac from Georgetown, ending at the 17th Street Wharf. At that point, a canal lock accommodated the changing elevation between Lock 1 in Georgetown and the tidal waters at 17th Street. When 17th Street was extended in 1902, the Lockkeeper’s House was moved about 50 feet, but its original foundation was left in place where it was exposed during the replacement of a sewer line. After exposure of the Lockkeeper’s House foundation, we should not have been surprised that the actual canal lock would be found a few feet away. Sure enough, as the tunnel for the sewer line proceeded beneath Constitution Avenue, there it was!

Perhaps the most spectacular find along 17th Street was the “Mother of All Sewers,” aka the Tiber Creek Sewer Outlet. As the city developed in the nineteenth century, the Washington City Canal became a major nuisance, essentially an open sewer that collected waste from much of the downtown area. In the 1870s the city began to cover the Washington City Canal, converting it to an underground sewer. Following the area’s natural topography and hydrology, the sewer outfall was located at the intersection of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, where waste emptied directly into the Potomac. Like the 17th Street Wharf and the C&O Canal Extension, the sewer outfall was engulfed during the land reclamation process that led to the creation of West Potomac Park. Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the sewer outlet was an immense structure, measuring some 40 feet across its headwall.

With these and the findings from many other studies, the understanding of archaeology in the District has been increasing. Some of my most satisfying projects have been those that presented the greatest challenges and that required strong partnerships among project proponents, review agencies, and construction teams. Without the commitment of all stakeholders, some of the city’s most interesting archaeological resources might have remained virtually unknown and forgotten. The amazing opportunities to document the historic foundries at the Navy Yard, the wharf beneath the pavement of 17th Street and the canal lock below Constitution Avenue would not have been possible under conventional archaeological survey methods and would not have happened without committed partnerships among all of the project stakeholders. Going forward, I hope that the preservation community will continue to challenge us to think creatively to search for new ways to bring the city’s archaeological heritage to light.

View of the headwall of the Tiber Creek Sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW.  Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the Lockkeeper's House is in the background, at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23.5 feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic.

View of the headwall of the Tiber Creek Sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW. Exposed during construction of the Potomac Park Levee, the Lockkeeper’s House is in the background, at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23.5 feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic. 

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