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Community Archaeology in Alexandria, Virginia

Pamela J. Cressey

In 2001, the City of Alexandria celebrated its fortieth archaeological anniversary. Driven by the community's commitment to preserve buildings, trees, sites, landscapes, and buried artifacts, Alexandria has developed a special relationship with archaeology. It's been my good fortune to serve as City Archaeologist for twenty-five years in this fourteen square-mile town along the Potomac River in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area. My colleagues and I work with the City-Council appointed Alexandria Archaeological Commission, the non-profit Friends of Alexandria Archaeology, and between one hundred and two hundred volunteers annually. Together we're the brain, brawn, precision, and heart that daily create Alexandria Archaeology.

Most recently, our commission and friends group have worked together on the Alexandria Heritage Trail. The trail links archaeological sites in town and leaves something above ground, rather than always mining artifacts and putting them in storage. One of our volunteers, Chan Mohney, saw the potential for people to ride around town to see archaeological sites, and started to offer an archaeological bike tour. That got us excited, and soon the "Tour de Digs" was developed and designated in 2000 as a Millennium Trail. People can walk, bike, skate, or drive through nine thousand years of human history using twenty-two miles of city-designated bike trails. The tours broaden archaeology's appeal to those who love to discover history and nature out of doors, and meet our goal of making historic places--not just the artifact--important.

Children have a special place with Alexandria Archaeology, because they'll soon hold in their hands the responsibility to preserve our city's heritage. We've worked with teachers to create a program joining classroom archaeology with experience in the archaeology lab and in the field. Classroom activities like "Trash Can Archaeology" and "Who Am I?" help students explore how archaeologists learn about people and their culture. Adventure Lessons draw on excavations across the city, like those at an early nineteenth-century sugar refinery and in the Hayti neighborhood, settled by free African Americans in the 1830s. They teach archaeological stewardship. They get students thinking and talking about issues important to their future. In the process, young Alexandrians find that issues such as racism, free enterprise, and the impacts of industry on our environment have a long history in the city.

We invite everyone to work and learn with us in the Alexandria Archaeology Adventure so we can touch our pasts as individuals with a collective spirit, and truly democratize our history. We "Hold the Past in Trust" for each of us to appreciate and express in our own way. We call this Community Archaeology.

Pamela J. Cressey is City Archaeologist for the City of Alexandria, Virginia, and Adjunct Associate Professor at The George Washington University.

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