Trash Becomes Treasure

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Shards of history turned up at the site of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture after a team of archaeologists spent three hot August weeks sifting through dirt as part of a mandated environmental impact study. The recovered artifacts, some pieces of pottery and lamps, and possibly some construction material from the building of the Washington Monument, will be cleaned, analyzed and eventually archived among the new museum’s collections.

Project executive Curtis Davis explained that the area had been used as a dumping ground in the late 19th century, as city planners called for infilling of the swampy waters that once covered the site. "You can think of it as a landfill," he says. "Much of what was unearthed has not been fully identified yet."

The museum, which is slated to open in 2015, has crossed a hurdle, says Davis, and no major impediments stand in the way of its plans to select an architect and designer by as early as next fall.

During the colonial era, the site was part of a slave-holding plantation. The area later supported slave markets. "For African Americans, this place has a particular resonance," says Fleur Paysour, the museum’s spokesperson. The archaeologists turned up little, however, in the way of historical evidence of that time.

"It is hard to recover material that supports evidence of the condition of slave's lives during the periods of Colonial Washington, the Civil War and Reconstruction," says Davis. "The usual archaeological evidence ascribed to ownership is difficult because slaves were property and didn't typically own property."

(Courtesy of Charles LeeDecker)

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