According to City Archeologist Pam Cressy, parking lots are some of the best places to find hidden treasures. Buried beneath all those gas-guzzling machines and oil-stained painted lines, protected by a layer of asphalt, some of the best discoveries are waiting for the archeologist’s gentle touch.
“Every parking lot in Alexandria is protecting archeological treasures,” Cressy said. “Usually, when you see a parking lot in an urban area, something has come down.”
The buried ghosts lurk underground until they are unearthed. Sometimes, secrets are revealed. Other times, questions outnumber answers and known facts. The latter is the case in the 1500 block of King Street, where an archeological dig now in progress has come across some surprising findings.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Cressy said. “This is extremely significant and interesting.”
Four feet beneath the surface, archeologists have discovered pieces of the puzzle: two wooden conduits, a hollow timer, a barrel and evidence of three other barrels. All of these seem to associated with one another, but nobody is quite sure how. The system features a covered box drain that might lead water or other liquid from one place to another.
“At this time we do not know whether the wooden conduits were used to channel water/liquid away from the site for drainage purposes or whether they delivered water for garden irrigation or for animals or people to drink,” Cressy wrote in a July 18 memorandum. “Although we are not sure how all the wooden objects operated together, it does appear that they were a part of a deliberately constructed and/or retrofitted system to collect and convey water. We are researching possibilities that the system was developed for a larger purpose than residential use.”
In the document, Cressy explains that the wooden conduits were originally constructed as a four-sided, open-ended box. The longest conduit extends about 30 feet from the eastern portion of the property — where the old Virginia House used to stand at the corner of King Street and Peyton Street — sloping to the west. Cressy estimates that the nails used during construction were made in the mid-19th century.
“We have evidence that the footprint of the property once had a slave jail,” Cressy said while examining the site last week. “We don’t know if that’s related to this or not.”
THE SITE IS HIDDEN from plain view. From King Street, all passersby can see is a wooden fence. The temporary barrier in the 1500 block of King stands where a 1913 townhouse was demolished in December. Preservationists filed a lawsuit, and the property owner has been involved in months of legal wrangling.
The addresses at 1514 King St. and 1516 King St. were part of a duplex that was originally constructed for two brothers who owned a grocery store in the 1700 block of King Street. City records show that a building permit was issued in 1913 and a demolition permit was issued in 2006. The property is currently owned by DSF Long, a development interest that purchased several buildings on the block for $5 million on Jan. 6, 2004. Andrew Macdonald was the only member of council to oppose DSF Long’s development plan, voicing a strong objection to the proposed demolition.
“We didn’t feel that these buildings were historic,” said Jonathan Rak, a lawyer with McGuireWoods who represents the property owner, DSF Long. “It wasn’t on the city’s list of historic buildings and it wasn’t listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”
AT THE SITE, oyster shells dot the landscape as archeologists dig into the earth. Wooden planks jut out of the dirt as a steady stream of curious onlookers wonder about what may have taken place in the past.
“Look at all these oyster shells,” said Mark Deville, an archeology volunteer who works in a nearby building. “They must have had some party here.”
Deville collects old bottles, and his eyes dart through piles of rubble for treasure.
“There’s one,” he says from behind a chain-link fence designed to keep people out of the area where the excavation is taking place. “There’s another.”
Archeologists will continue to document the findings until the city’s strict standards for excavation have been meet. Until then, DSF Long’s construction will have to wait until Cressy is satisfied with the data collection at the construction site.
“Maybe this has something to do with the military occupation of Alexandria during the Civil War. This could have been built by the army,” Cressy said. “We really don’t know. Anything is possible.”
AS INVESTIGATION continues into the buried treasures of the past, the imagination is prompted to consider the future. DSF Long’s development plan is in effect. The lawsuit brought against the developer has been settled in favor of a contribution to Gadsby’s Tavern, and the developer will soon be free to construct his approved plan.
But what will become of this unusual find?
“We never would have found these pieces without this project,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka. “It would be very exciting if some of this could somehow be incorporated into the courtyard as public art of some kind.”
Krupicka said that he asked DSF Long to consider the idea — one that would bring the scattered bits of the 19th century out of the ashes of the 21st century demolition. The result would be an installation piece of some sort, asking visitors to reflect on the city’s often mysterious past.
“History isn’t very useful when it is hidden under piles of dirt,” Krupicka said. “Finding ways to bring history to life can help ensure history stays relevant to residents and guests of our city.”