Public Historical Archaeology in the Mid-Atlantic Region

Archaeology in Annapolis tour, 1980s. (Courtesy Archaeology in Annapolis)


By Rebecca Yamin

Public archaeology is not new, but projects like the African Burial Ground in New York City and the President’s House in Philadelphia have attracted a larger audience for archaeology in the Northeast than ever before.  The term public archaeology originally referred to projects that were publicly funded in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act first passed in 1966.  The archaeology was “public” because it was paid for with public money, and archaeologists felt a responsibility to give back to the public, a responsibility usually fulfilled by site tours, public participation days, and short descriptions of what had been found written in lay language. Archaeologists also feared if they didn’t give back, the funding, and even the laws, might disappear. The tours provided an opportunity to educate people about archaeological methods and hopefully discourage looting of sites in the process, an effort that has only been partially successful.

While tours and brochures are still basic to public archaeology, in the last twenty years or so archaeologists have learned to collaborate with communities whose heritage is being investigated.  In some instances members of communities have become actively engaged in the research, a process that has been empowering for them and enriching for the archeologists.  There is no one standard for doing public archaeology in the present.  Each site presents different challenges and different levels of interest from the public.  What is always required is that the results of the project be delivered in some way that is understandable to a general audience.

As the field of public archaeology evolved, two projects set the standards in the Mid-Atlantic.  Archaeology in Annapolis, a program begun in 1981 by the University of Maryland in collaboration with the Historic Annapolis Foundation, a private non-profit preservation organization, and still going strong, has conducted archaeological investigations at multiple sites within the historic core of the city and delivered the results to the public using a theoretical perspective that invites visitors to think about the past in new ways.  Alexandria Archaeology, a city organization created by Alexandria, Virginia’s City Council in 1975, has been excavating sites throughout the city and interpreting them for the public for the last thirty-five years.  Analysis now takes place in full view of the public in a glass-walled laboratory at the top of the Torpedo Factory, a tourist emporium in the middle of that city’s historic district.

Students learn to excavate under close supervision at Alexandria Archaeology Summer Camp. (Courtesy Alexandria Archaeology)

Both Archaeology in Annapolis and Alexandria Archaeology began their public outreach activities with tours of ongoing excavations. The purpose of the tours was (and is) to share what has been unearthed with the public, but the tours can be more than that.  Dr. Mark Leone, the founder of Archaeology in Annapolis and a professor at the University of Maryland, conceived of the program as a laboratory for using critical theory to engage visitors in a new understanding of their own past.  Working with Parker Potter, one of his first collaborators, Leone developed a three-pronged approach to public interpretation: ethnography to determine how a community uses its past; archaeology to illuminate what is hidden or buried; and an archaeological practice that presents the techniques, methods, and findings of ethnographically informed archaeological research to the local community.  The idea is to demystify the archaeologist and enable the visitor to construct a historical interpretation that may be different from the commonly accepted version.

Exhibits have also been basic to presenting the finds to the public.  In 2008, for the three hundredth anniversary of Annapolis’s Royal Charter, issued to the city by Queen Anne of Great Britain in 1708, Leone and his colleagues mounted an exhibit of artifacts from four archaeological sites: the Jonas Green House and print shop, the Governor Calvert House Hotel, The Reynolds Tavern and Brice House, and the Maynard-Burgess House. The exhibit focused on two themes: political dissent during the American Revolution and the integrity and continuity of African and African American culture.

Central to the dissent theme was a piece of type with a skull and crossbones design found on the print shop site and used in the Maryland Gazette to protest the Stamp Act.  African American related artifacts dating to the eighteenth century included bags or bundles of objects—pins, nails, four-hole buttons, rounded stones, white powder, etc.— used in traditional West African religious practice to make the spirits of the dead work to heal, protect, or punish the living.   While the main exhibit was at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, a cell phone tour  directed visitors to the sites where the artifacts had been excavated as well as to satellite exhibits on related themes mounted in local businesses. A blog attracted respondents from forty countries, and a web-based version of the tour made the entire exhibit available to people who couldn’t come to Annapolis.  Alexandria’s archaeological program began in 1961 when citizens convinced the city to purchase a Civil War fort called Fort Ward, conduct excavations, and restore a portion of it. Later in the 1960s, citizens enlisted Colonial Williamsburg’s noted archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume and the Smithsonian Institution to help preserve archaeological evidence threatened by urban renewal, a partnership that lasted until 1971.  By 1975 the city had created the Alexandria Archaeological Commission and charged it with “promoting archaeology and establishing goals and priorities for using Alexandria’s archaeological resources to contribute to the history and heritage of the city.”

The Commission hired Dr. Pamela Cressey to direct its program, referred to as Alexandria Archaeology, in 1977.  One of Cressey’s initial achievements was to identify areas with the greatest potential for archaeological resources by surveying the city’s historic neighborhoods and patterns of land use.  From the beginning, volunteers have participated in all phases of the Alexandria Archaeology program, contributing as many as five thousand hours of labor in one year.  Even more important than their labor is their connection to the community and appreciation of the significant role archaeology can play in uncovering local history. Public educational programs including archaeology summer camps and family dig days attract additional people who are making archaeology an integral part of living in or visiting Alexandria.  Local hotels display recovered artifacts and a twenty-three-mile tour with map and guidebook directs visitors to a selection of archaeological sites.

Richard Tyler, at the time head of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, giving an on-site tour of the FABC burial ground excavation, c. 1983.

The excavation of burial grounds in the Mid-Atlantic has presented particular opportunities and challenges for public involvement.  One of the earliest projects took place in Philadelphia in the 1980s.  A burial associated with a nineteenth-century congregation of the First African Baptist Church (FABC) was exposed unexpectedly during construction of an office building.  The burial belonged to a burial ground located at Eighth and Vine streets and, in 1983, 146 skeletons were excavated from the site. The excavation, headed by Daniel G. Roberts of John Milner Associates, Inc., to a great extent set the standards for stakeholder involvement in public archaeology projects.  The project was done in collaboration with the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and the present-day FABC congregation.

Church members participated in the development of the research design, site tours on a specially built viewing platform, homecoming ceremonies, a thirty-seven-minute video (since transferred to CD), museum exhibits, seminars and lectures, press coverage, and reburial ceremonies.  A second burial ground belonging to another nineteenth-century congregation of the FABC was excavated at Tenth and Vine streets in 1990, in the path of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s construction of the Vine Street Expressway. This project too was done by John Milner Associates, Inc. under the direction of Roberts in collaboration with members of the present-day congregation.

Prayer vigil at the African Burial Ground excavation in New York City (Photograph by Dennis Seckler, courtesy U.S. General Services Administration)

A decade later in New York City, when burials associated with an eighteenth-century burial ground turned up on the site of an office building being built by the United States General Services Administration, public reaction was much more contentious.  Specifically, African American New Yorkers, defining themselves as the descendant community of what is now referred to as the African Burial Ground, mobilized.  They did not want any more of their ancestors dug up than necessary, and once excavated they wanted to be sure the remains were treated with respect.  As stakeholders, community members insisted on having a say in how the nearly four hundred skeletons were studied, who did the studying, and how they were reburied.

Dr. Michael Blakey, an African-American physical anthropologist then at Howard University, directed the analysis of the skeletal remains as well as a thorough historical study of slavery in New York and the African roots of the local population.  The community kept track of the analysis process through a liaison office set up in the World Trade Center and watched over the reburial once the remains were returned to the city.  Under the direction of Dr. Sherrill Wilson, the liaison office, known as OPEI, for Office of Public Education and Interpretation, conducted a wide-reaching educational program in the public schools, produced a newsletter, and gave many lectures about the project both in New York and beyond.  The office building on the site of the African Burial Ground now houses an interpretive exhibit on its main floor.

Philadelphia’s African American community was also heavily involved in a public archaeology project on the site of the house where George Washington and John Adams lived while serving as the country’s first two presidents.   When the community became aware that President Washington’s household had included nine enslaved Africans, they called for interpretation and commemoration on the site, which had not previously been slated for excavation.  Working with an advisory committee appointed by the city that included representatives from two African American organizations, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition and Generations Unlimited; an ad hoc committee of historians; and local politicians, the National Park Service conducted an excavation in 2007.

Cheryl LaRoche speaking to students on the platform at the President’s House in Philadelphia. (Courtesy Independence National Historical Park)
Cheryl LaRoche speaking to students on the platform at the President’s House in Philadelphia. (Courtesy Independence National Historical Park)

Jed Levin of the National Park Service directed the project, and the public was able to watch the work-in-progress from a platform built along the edge of the excavation.  As archaeologists explained the exposed foundations, including the corner of the kitchen where the enslaved Africans worked and the curving foundation of the bow window in the room where Washington received visitors, conversations took place about the meaning of slavery in the past and its legacy in the present.  Issues not often broached were raised, and visitors came away with new insights into how deeply slavery was embedded in the history of the new nation.  The foundations are still visible in a glass-enclosed area in the center of the permanent memorial on the site; the names of the enslaved members of Washington’s household are inscribed on one wall of the memorial; and a small, enclosed area symbolically represents the institution of slavery.

Stakeholder involvement has evolved under revised regulations implementing the law under which most of the archaeology projects in the United States are done.  Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act now requires not only that federal agencies take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties and consult with state and tribal preservation officers, but also that plans be made to involve the public and potential stakeholders. (e.g., local agencies, professional watchdog organizations).   Building on such programs as Archaeology in Annapolis and Alexandria Archaeology, practitioners have responded to this mandate in all sorts of ways.

Visitors view artifacts recovered on the I-95 project, 2012. (Courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and URS Corporation)

In Philadelphia, carefully trained volunteers are the backbone of the labor force processing the million-plus artifacts recovered from the site of the National Constitution Center.  URS, the consulting firm now conducting a large archaeological project along the I-95 corridor in North Philadelphia, sponsors tours and lectures for local residents and will mount a major exhibit of the finds at the Independence Seaport Museum in the fall of 2012.  A fragment of an eighteenth-century battery wall found during construction of the South Ferry Terminal in Lower Manhattan in 2005 has been reconstructed in the wall of the South Ferry subway station.

We archaeologists are trying to speak and write with less jargon, and some of us have even attempted to write history-like narratives incorporating the archaeological finds into readable stories, or vignettes as I call them.  While we have not ceased to produce long technical reports, we have also produced plenty of brochures, exhibit panels, web sites, and blogs.  Archaeology in other parts of the world—Peru, Mexico, Egypt, Greece—has always won the attention of the public, but until recently, few Americans knew there was exciting archaeology in their own backyards.  The challenge is to make it accessible to the public and to work closely with historians to build a picture of the past that includes all the people.


Philadelphia-based Rebecca Yamin is the author of Digging in the City of Brotherly Love: Stories from Philadelphia Archaeology (2008).  She was a principal archaeologist with John Milner Associates, Inc. from 1992 to 2011 and is currently working on the West Shipyard project with JMA for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC).  She recently taught a course in historical archaeology in the public history program at Rutgers-Camden.