News & Politics

A Brief History of Accidental Archaeological Discoveries in Washington

Workers excavate a boat found in Alexandria. Photo courtesy Alexandria Archaeology.

As the redevelopment of Alexandria’s waterfront continues, construction crews digging and excavating in Old Town have stumbled upon a few significant archaeological findings. Last November, a crew prepping the site of a waterfront hotel found the remnants of an 18th-century warehouse, and just this week, workers found the hull of a centuries-old ship.

These finds are exciting, but they also happen quite a bit at Washington construction sites. In 1996, for example, a government worker found Clara Barton’s famed Missing Soldiers Office while reviewing a building slated for demolition. Here are five more instances from the last 25 years when Washington-area history was inadvertently discovered:

2015: Fairfax County’s Corduroy Road

In October, while excavating Fairfax County’s Ox Road to expand the shoulder and sidewalk, construction crews discovered a wooden highway to the past under several feet of asphalt. Called a “corduroy road” due to its resemblance to the ribbed fabric, the cedar-log road dated back to the Civil War, when it was used by armies crossing Northern Virginia. Historians believe it’s likely that generals like J.E.B. Stuart, Joseph Hooker, and Robert E. Lee marched their troops along this route.

But what made this discovery so special was that the road was in such good shape. Thanks to layers of asphalt on top, the corduroy road was preserved nearly as it was 150 years ago.

2014: Selina Gray’s $20 Photo

In 2014, National Park Service volunteer Dean DeRosa was casually searching eBay when he came across a previously unknown photo of Selina Gray, a slave owned by the family of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, posing with her at the Lees’ home, Arlington House. On the photo’s back, there was an inscription reading, “Gen Lees Slaves Arlington Va.” The seller, from England, said the image turned up in a box of “unwanted photos” in a flea market.

Selina Gray is known to Lee’s biographers for safeguarding the contents of Arlington House after the Lee family fled the conquering Union Army. Before DeRosa’s eBay find, there was only one other known image of Gray. After a fierce bidding war, a non-profit partner of the NPS was able to buy the photo for $700. The original asking price was $20.

2005 & 2012: Georgetown’s Bones

It’s not everyday that bodies fall out of walls. But it’s happened at least twice on Q St. in Georgetown. Masonry workers discovered a human jaw with teeth and a few ribs while working on the foundation of a rowhouse. The remains were later determined to have belonged to a teenager of West African descent who likely lived on the property more than a century ago.

Almost the same thing happened again down the street seven years later. Workers building a garage uncovered two sets of human remains in coffins, including a skull. Two more skulls were found by construction crews in the backyard ten days later. Research dated the bones back at least 150 years. Historians believe the remains could have come from the 18th- and 19th-century Presbyterian cemetery that sat on the grounds known today as Volta Park.

1997: Madam on the Mall

During the Smithsonian Institution’s survey for the Mall for the National Museum of the American Indian, workers on the Mall dug up a trash pile containing the refuse of DC’s classiest 19th century brothel. The find included champagne corks, broken porcelain dishes, oyster shells, and women’s grooming items.

For four decades, Mary Ann Hall ran this house of ill repute steps from the Capital, catering to politicians, journalists, and foreign dignitaries. Due the brothel’s convenient location, historians later nicknamed Hall the “Madam of Mall.” Well-liked by the media and very successful, Hall was able to amass a small fortune. One can still pay a visit to Hall, who is buried at Congressional Cemetery under an impressive monument that continues to stand erect.

1994: Planting Vegetables, Finding 5,000-Year-Old Tools

Working in his garden, Alexandria resident Paul Elliott came upon prehistoric quartzite tools that archaeologists would later say dated back four thousand years.

Further inspection revealed that Elliott and his family lived on a property that had been inhabited for thousands of years, a timeline that flowed through Native Americans, Europeans settlers, Alexandria’s era as a major port city, and the Civil War. Said a Fairfax County archaeologist at the time of the discovery, “We thought [ancient] people had stayed primarily along the rivers, but this put them smack dab in the interior.”