Alexandria

Alexandria Archaeology: We Dig Virginia’s History

Lab volunteers wash artifacts from the Shuter's Hill site in Alexandria, Virginia

Lab volunteers wash artifacts from the Shuter’s Hill site in Alexandria, Virginia

Since 1995, staff archaeologists and volunteers with the Alexandria Archaeology Museum have been working to excavate a site on the grounds of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial that sits high on a bluff overlooking the historic downtown area of Alexandria, Virginia. The site — known as Shuter’s Hill (44AX175) — was once the location of an 18th century plantation, as well as a second home built in the mid-19th century when the plantation home burned. Artifacts associated with the Civil War era occupation of the city have also been uncovered. More information about the Shuter’s Hill site is available here.

Shuter's Hill (44AX175) site (Alexandria, Virginia)

Shuter’s Hill (44AX175) site (Alexandria, Virginia)

During the Day of Archaeology, our dedicated team of volunteers continued the investigation of Shuter’s Hill. Field volunteers at the site worked long hours through the summer heat to uncover items associated with the early plantation and 19th century home. At the museum, our lab volunteers were busy washing artifacts and preparing them for identification and cataloging.

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum is free and open to the public. We can always count on a steady stream of visitors, including many students, families, tourists and local history buffs. In addition to our staff and lab volunteers, the museum was truly abuzz during this year’s Day of Archaeology!

    Shuter's Hill Excavation (Alexandria, VA)    Artifacts on Display at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum    Alexandria, VA Shuter's Hill Site
More Information
Alexandria Archaeology Museum:  http://www.alexandriava.gov/Archaeology
Shuter’s Hill Site Information:  http://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/archaeology/ARShutersHillBrochure.pdf

Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site): www.LootBusters.com
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon): http://www.lootbusters.com/ItalyIndex.html
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see: http://www.lootbusters.com/Italy/ItalyReliefs.html):
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (http://www.lootbusters.com/Italy/ItalyFibulae.html):
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.

Afternoon on the Piazza at Mount Vernon

Hi from Esther White and Luke Pecoraro, the Director of Archaeology and Assistant Archaeologist at Mount Vernon!  There is never a dull day at George Washington’s estate.   A search has been underway all week for a leak in one of the modern irrigation lines.  Mount Vernon was surveyed during the 1980s so we know where archaeological sites are located on our 425 acres.  Despite this, when our grounds crew is looking for a leaky pipe we monitor their exploratory trenches to ensure that nothing of cultural importance is disturbed.  You can see how we spent part of our afternoon in this photo.

 


Mount Vernon Interns

At Mount Vernon, we have reached our final day (sad face) of an 8 week internship program devoted to different aspects of the Archaeological Collections Online initiative.  Our interns came from prestigious universities around the country to take on individual research projects pertaining to the material and social worlds of planter elites like George Washington and the enslaved community upon whose labor these genteel lifestyles were based.

Here’s what our interns have to say about their work!

Katie Barca: Today I am in the process of entering decorated or marked pipes from the South Grove Midden as Objects in the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). In the future, images of these pipes will be posted on the  Mount Vernon’s Midden website.

Joe Downer: Today I am transcribing store accounts from an 18th century Virginia merchant, Alexander Henderson.  By transcribing Henderson’s ledgers, researchers are better able to understand what colonists were purchasing in Northern Virginia before the Revolution, and have a greater insight into pre-revolutionary material culture.

James Bland: I’m also transcribing the Henderson store accounts, but for Alexandria instead of Colchester.  Henderson worked for John Glassford and Company, who together were the Scottish Tobacco Kings of the Chesapeake region.  Their records show an emerging class of non-elite consumers that didn’t exist in the early colonial period.

Page from Henderson's store account, 1763.

Leah Thomas: I am currently writing the report for my summer project, which involves research on 18th century dining objects as represented in museum collections.  I am also looking into the possibility of a connection between dining vessel and utensil form variety and the Rococo art movement in the American colonies.

Sophia Farrulla: This day of archaeology has been packed with thoughts of items related to tea, coffee, and drinking chocolate.  Twinnings tea in hand, I’m finishing a final write up on exotic beverages amongst the 18th century elite.

Tea cup decorated with Aesop's fables found in the midden.

Julia Kennedy: Squirrels and Bamboo and Grapes, oh my! I’m working on drawing a small rodent decoration that appears on Washington’s (George’s or perhaps his elder half-brother Lawrence’s) Chinese export porcelain plates. Each plate was hand-painted, therefore making each curious critter unique.

Squirrel, tree shrew, or other googly-eyed rodent on Washington's Chinese export porcelain.

Jennie Williams: I’m researching George Washington’s purchases from England between 1754 and 1772.  Eventually, these data, gathered from Washington’s orders and invoices, will be available to the public through an online, searchable database.

Anna Dempsey: Today, I am working on my paper for the research I’ve done on lead shot in the archaeological and historical record. I’m also writing an entry about picking 1/16” material, including lead shot, for our blog.

Interns ponder how their projects will appear on the Mount Vernon midden website!