In Our Backyard: Digging Loudoun History

By Bob Shuey and Hayden Mathews

Much of Loudoun County’s rich history of over 15,000 years of human activity is buried and therefore unknown. Archaeology provides a means to unearth material evidence that can help write the history of important places for which there are few written records. How can archaeology help determine which places are historically important and reveal the hidden history?

A place is considered historically important—that is, eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places—if it is a) associated with an important event, b) associated with an important person, c) has important architectural features, or d) is likely to yield information important in prehistory or history. Archaeology can help with all these criteria, but is uniquely able to unearth man-made items that can impart the important information named in criterion d. Of course, the archaeological investigation must be conducted before the buried evidence is destroyed by human activity or natural catastrophes. (The Feb. 10, 2017, article in this column by Jane Covington and Mitch Diamond described conditions under criteria a, b, and c which might qualify an historic property as significant.)

First, a place must be an “archaeological site,” a place with boundaries containing features such as graves, privies, hearths, middens or post holes, or containing a group of artifacts at least 50 years old that are related in time or purpose. Phase I archaeological surveys are the way researchers identify sites. In a Phase I survey, archaeologists examine historical records, conduct a surface reconnaissance of the project area, and excavate samples of soils and artifacts beneath the surface.

Next, the archaeological site must have integrity: the layers of soil holding the features or artifacts cannot have been physically disturbed by plowing, landscaping, flooding or some other event. The spatial relationships of in situ artifacts can help date the site and yield information on where and how specific activities occurred. Retrieval of undisturbed organic materials (e.g. charcoal, bones, plant fibers, seeds, and pollen) can also help date the site and provide information about the occupants’ diets and local environmental conditions.

Finally, the information yielded by an undisturbed site must have been unknown or in need of confirmation for the site to be considered significant and eligible for listing on the National Register. For instance, if a Loudoun site contained Clovis points or other Paleolithic stone tools, it may be considered significant because little is known about the lives of Native Americans in Northern Virginia 10,000 years ago. Historic sites may also be considered significant for their potential to yield important information about people not well represented in written records, such as early settlers, enslaved African-Americans, freedmen and rural poor.

Numerous significant archaeological sites have been uncovered in the past 15 years because Loudoun County requires a Phase I archaeological survey as part of land development applications. One important site found in a new development is the only 18th century tavern site in the county that has been excavated, researched, and analyzed. The remains of the tavern, a detached kitchen and stables, were uncovered, along with large quantities of bottle glass and tobacco pipes. This site was an excellent location for a tavern, situated alongside a busy road (current Rt. 7) near the bridge over Broad Run.

Archaeological investigations at another site uncovered the remains of two aligned double pen slave quarters with central chimneys. Artifacts recovered included handmade ceramics, gaming pieces, and pierced coins, all associated with the presence of enslaved African-Americans. An abandoned cemetery nearby contained a separate section of fieldstone markers, also indicative of the presence of slaves. Research revealed the family that owned the property in the 19th century owned as many as 33 slaves, and that by 1860, there were four “slave houses” on this property and another five on adjacent family property. The remnant structures found onsite, as well as the standing Arcola Slave Quarter located a half mile to the south, account for three of these houses.

Other significant sites in the county, not threatened by development, have been investigated by members of the Archeological Society of Virginia, by academics, and government-funded researchers. A number of prehistoric sites border the Potomac River and its tributaries. The most notable excavated prehistoric site is the Fisher Site, a well-preserved Late Woodland village located near the confluence of the Potomac River and Broad Run. Excavations identified the remains of a possible palisade, dwellings, refuse pits, and cooking hearths. This site is one of several comprising the “Montgomery Focus” culture, riverside locations which have contributed to our knowledge of settlement patterns, village size, and interaction between populations from about AD 900 to 1400.

To date, more than 1,700 Loudoun archaeological sites have been identified and mapped and their associated artifacts logged, bagged, and stored. Most of these sites were found during land development projects in the eastern portion of the county, and as development continues county-wide, many more sites are likely to be identified. The historic resources beneath these sites have enormous cultural, aesthetic, and economic value to county residents. What we learn about Loudoun’s history from archaeology supplements what we learn from historic records, diaries, correspondence, photos, maps and buildings from past centuries. All these resources are fragile—subject to destruction by man or natural events. Archaeology can be vital for discovering significant heritage resources anywhere history happened in Loudoun County, and archaeological analysis can be a key supplement to the work of historians, biographers, archivists, architects, map makers and others, as long as the resources are protected.

[Bob Shuey and Hayden Mathews are members of the Banshee Reeks Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia. Information in this article related to specific sites in Loudoun County was verified by Nora Sheehan, the Loudoun County Staff Archaeologist. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn more about the organization, or to participate in the Rural Roads Initiative, go to loudouncoalition.org.]

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