Around the Mall & Beyond

At the site of a new Smithsonian museum, a team of archaeologists dug up traces of a 19th-century neighborhood

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Here I am, getting rid of my used-up Slim-Rite Wundertip felt pen and standing over the wastebasket ready to throw the thing in like a dart-when I stop in my tracks and tell myself, Wait a minute. Did I think this was nothing but a piece of trash? Jetsam from my frantic career? I am holding in my hands here a nugget of history.

Last fall a team of archaeologists did a dig at the Mall location of the future National Museum of the American Indian, a $110 million building that will stand just east of the National Air and Space Museum, and they unearthed a lot of trash. The National Historic Preservation Act requires that every federally funded building must first have its site vetted for possible impact on cultural resources, which means it has to be checked out for artifacts of bygone civilizations.

It is a useful policy. The practice of looking where we dig has had payoffs for the Smithsonian even when something other than early civilizations have been involved. A dozen years ago, at a construction site near Largo, Maryland, work was delayed for a few days when a giant bone pulled from the mud proved to be the rib of a mammoth. Plunging up to my knees in the mud, I reported the find for the Washington Post. And by the time Smithsonian paleontologists had examined the find, and the press reported it, we all knew a lot more about mammoths.

And I remember back in 1984 when a 29,000-year-old cyprus log was pulled from the hole that would become the underground complex of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art. Once again we got a chance to learn a little something, that time about Washington at the beginning of the last ice age.

The Mall site for the Indian museum is a strip of land between the Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Botanic Garden. Today it is open greensward-a nice place for a game of volleyball, with a stunning view of the Capitol. But in the last half of the 19th century, and as late as 1928, it was a residential neighborhood whose ambience is suggested by the name of a dirt roadway that ran behind the houses: Louse Alley.

It was not a high-rent district, and probably most residents were more or less transient. A Washington Gas Light Company tank loomed over the street, alongside the E. N. Gray & Co. Foundry and the Taylor and Low Stone Yard. Living in these narrow houses were immigrants from Europe and some African-American families. There was no sign of the area's 17th-century inhabitants, the Conoy Indians, a rather sedate group of Algonquian farmers who apparently didn't want to settle on what was then marshland.

The search team dug as deep as eight feet through soil that had been brought in to fill the marshland when Tiber Creek (which ran roughly along today's Constitution Avenue) was drained and channelized in 1815, and they found "oyster shells, 400 pounds of oyster shells!" according to Donna Seifert, the project manager for John Milner Associates, urban archaeologists, planners and architects.

I don't know, maybe oysters were cheap in those days, but 400 pounds of oyster shells means a lot of oysters. It sounded to me as if someone must have had a grand party out there. "Oh no," Seifert says. "We looked on the map and found there had been an oyster house on the corner."

There were also many bucketfuls of crockery shards, blue pottery from Britain, kitchenware, antique beer bottles, medicine bottles, animal bones and a couple of dolls much the worse for wear. All these items have been taken to the Milner lab in Alexandria, Virginia, to be analyzed to determine, for example, what companies made the discarded dishes and bottles. A report is due this summer.

The archaeologists noticed that residents tended to pile up their refuse at the back of their yards, occasionally shoveling dirt on top. And since most of the houses had no running water or bathrooms, "we were hoping to find outhouses," Seifert says, "because a pit of any kind, a cistern or even a well, when it's abandoned, gets filled in relatively quickly with garbage. This makes it a sort of time capsule. But unfortunately the locals used only box privies, the kind with removable drawers for easy cleaning."

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