Digging Up The U.S.

“It’s not every day you come across an 18th-century ship in almost pristine condition.”

“What fascinates me about doing archaeology like this,” Cressey says, squinting in the bright sunshine, “is that it allows you to see the flow of human existence over time in one spot. It never ceases to amaze me. I mean, here we are, standing on the site of a mideighteenth-century wharf, looking up at a storybook Georgian house, which is across from an old market square and a nineteenth-century city hall. A World War I torpedo factory used to stand here, but that’s been torn down to make way for a new waterfront development.

She turns to take in the panorama of history. “Urban archaeology can help make people feel they’re part of a community, that they’re connected to the past. It sort of gives them a hug.”

Cressey’s program, the largest of its kind in the country, was established by the city of Alexandria in 1977 and now has nearly three hundred volunteers. Some of them, like the Defense Department intelligence analyst who is helping out on the wharf excavation today, put in seven hundred and fifty hours in a year. With only three staff archaeologists and an annual budget of eight thousand dollars (not including salaries or office space that the city provides free), Cressey relies on the help of volunteers to carry out her ambitious program. Unlike most urban archaeologists, who are contracted to investigate a particular area slated for development, Cressey treats the whole city as her site. She digs pretty much where she pleases. Some of her excavations, like the one this weekend, are simple salvage operations. But she has also received permission to dig up wells in the backyards of some of Alexandria’s more exclusive homes; she has excavated several sites in the nineteenth-century free-black neighborhood known as the “Bottoms”; and she has done extensive archaeological work on a block that had long been occupied by upwardly mobile middleclass families. “We were able to see, in the cultural material found on that block, a concern for keeping up with the fads of the period,” she says later that afternoon, while taking me on an archaeological tour of the city. “By the middle of the nineteenth century, people were discarding whole dinner sets, service for twelve. It was the beginning of our modern, throwaway society.”

In the nineteenth century people discarded whole dinner sets; it was the start of our throwaway society.

Working as an archaeologist in an urban environment is not without its problems. There is plenty of red tape to be cut through above ground and lots of things to be avoided below ground. A few months earlier, just around the time the movie Poltergeist was released, Cressey got a spate of phone calls from people who claimed to have seen human bones and coffin handles at the site of a new housing development outside of town. An old cemetery had once been located on the site, but a nearby funeral home swore that all the graves had been removed. The real world turned out to be not as spooky as Hollywood would have it: Cressey’s investigation unearthed no skeletons.

Then there are the minor inconveniences of city life. Back at the wharf site toward the end of the day, as the sun is disappearing behind the Georgian houses on Fairfax Street, Cressey is finishing up a sketch of the stratigraphy of a pit wall when a volunteer rushes over in a panic. He had spent the last half-hour meticulously setting up a transit so he could take some final survey measurements before the sun went down. Just as he had everything lined up, a woman trying to park her car backed into the tripod, knocking it over. Now it is too dark to start again. Cressey, half-amused, half-sympathetic, looks up from her sketch pad and shrugs, “That’s urban archaeology.”

P OINT REYES National Seashore, twenty-five miles north of San Francisco, is about as non-urban a setting as one is likely to find anywhere. From a half-mile out on Drake’s Bay the view is probably not much different from what it was that day in 1579 when the British explorer sailed into these waters on his way around the world. No telephone poles or beachfront condominiums mar the shoreline. A flock of brown pelicans glides low over the surface of the bay, beaks cocked in search of prey. Against a backdrop of dun-colored cliffs, a peregrine falcon cuts circles in the sky before coming to rest on a guano-covered rock.