ALEXANDRIA, VA – On Saturday, Oct. 16, Mary Wadland, Publisher of The Zebra Press, received a letter from Ivy Whitlatch, Chair of the Alexandria Archaeological Commission. The letter concerns the article, “Discovering Alexandria’s Untold History One Privy at a Time,” published by The Zebra on Oct. 5. The full text of the letter follows:
Dear Ms. Wadland:
As Chair of the Alexandria Archaeological Commission, I read your October 5, 2020 article, “Discovering Alexandria’s Untold History One Privy at a Time” with great excitement, anticipating an in-depth story on the City of Alexandria’s long-standing archaeology program and museum in the Torpedo Factory. Instead, I was shocked to read a story about removing artifacts from their location for the enjoyment of one person, the spirit of which runs counter to the public archaeology program that the City established over 40 years ago.
Most cities in this country do not put forth the kind of effort and care that Alexandria does to preserve its history. Not only do we have an archaeological preservation code on the City’s books, but the City employs a staff of professional archaeologists to manage the City’s buried resources. Charleston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, even Washington, D.C. do not protect their archaeological resources to the same degree that we do in Alexandria. As such, much of our identity as Alexandrians stems from our shared commitment to preserving our city’s historic buildings, streetscapes, alleys, and buried artifacts.
The reason these places and objects have meaning is not because they are old or rare, but because they fit together to form the unique story that is Alexandria. They have what archeologists call “context,” meaning these artifacts were found in a known location and have known relationships to other artifacts. Finding old bottles certainly can be exciting, but if excavated properly, we can discover who owned them, what food they ate, and other details of their lives. Without context, objects, even the smallest fragments, are robbed of a great deal of their power to tell a story and help us learn more about our past. Instead, they are just old things with no backstory.
Every property owner in Old Town who makes a discovery should reach out to Alexandria Archaeology. Their job is to respond to questions about the city’s archaeological heritage. They are a great resource for all Alexandrians. Collecting bottles may be a fun hobby, but as a property owner in the Old and Historic District of Old Town, the responsible action is to add to the collective understanding of our city’s past.
I did just that this spring when a well on our property in Old Town was found, actually not only on my property, but also my neighbor’s. The well literally was half on our side, half on his. I knew the responsible next step was to contact the city’s archaeology department. We were all surprised when they inspected the well to discover that it was from the 1820’s and is the second known well in the city to straddle the property line between two lots that had structures on them at that time. This was very intriguing to staff, sparking new questions about neighborly cooperation in the past.
The Alexandria Archeological [sic] Commission would like to encourage your readers that the next time anyone knocks on their door asking to dig a privy, or if they are interested in finding out what type of history is in their backyard, contact Alexandria Archaeology at (703) 746-4399 or at [email protected]. Professional archaeologists are standing by ready to answer questions and solve the mysteries of our City’s past.
Ivy Whitlatch, Chair
Alexandria Archaeological Commission