Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

RSS feed of this blog

HFFI’s ideas on Ellis-Bell dig and urban archaeology

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

Professional archaeologist Tracey McDonald and volunteer Kieth Littlefield (left) excavate part of the property where Fredericksburg Hardware stood at William and Winchester streets. The site was home to potter Francis Hamilton Bell’s stoneware kiln and other structures. (MARIE SICOLA/THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

Sean Maroney, executive director of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc., was kind enough to share his thoughts about this past weekend’s all-volunteer effort to excavate part of the former Fredericksburg Hardware site on William Street.

It recently came to light that that the property, briefly at least, was home to a “stoneware factory” established by Francis Hamilton Bell, a transplant from New York state.

Here’s what Maroney wrote:

The enormous success of this weekend’s archaeological excavations at the Ellis-Bell site can be measured in a variety of ways.

Perhaps more than anything else, it offers a poignant demonstration of what’s possible when this city’s residents unite behind a worthwhile cause.

From start to finish, this was truly a community-based effort, made possible through the support of the property’s owner, Silver Companies, the efforts of over 50 volunteers, and the monetary and in-kind contributions pledged by private citizens, local businesses, and organizations, including, among others, the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc. (HFFI), Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, Inc., the City of Fredericksburg, the Fredericksburg Area Museum, Ferry Farm, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Like previous excavations in downtown Fredericksburg, including those undertaken at the Marriott Hotel site in 2006 and more recently at the new courthouse location on Princess Anne Street, the Ellis-Bell project also provided brief and tantalizing confirmation of the richness and enormous potential research value of our city’s archaeological heritage.

In addition to confirming the existence, probable location, and subsequent destruction of an early 19th century stoneware kiln, this weekend’s excavations also revealed evidence of, among other things, remnants of a previously unknown pre-Civil War structure and materials associated with two circa 1880s brick townhomes destroyed during a fire that swept through this and several surrounding blocks in 1914.

In the process, we not only learned a great deal about the history and development of this particular lot, but also the physical, social, and economic evolution of the city’s downtown commercial district as a whole.

By preserving, recording, and studying archaeological remains like these, we create opportunities to broaden and deepen our understanding of this city’s unique past, and its importance to both Virginia’s and our nation’s larger historical narratives.

Moreover, when combined with written historical records, the information we glean through archaeology can also lead to important new insights about our past, particularly with regard to the often unrecorded and forgotten lives of our community’s working class residents and minority enclaves.

And, by interpreting and sharing this knowledge with the public, we derive additional social and economic benefits including, for example:

– a stronger sense of community in the present fostered by a more nuanced connection to, and inclusive sense of, the past, and;

– a new and more dynamic history to attract visitors, which, in turn, helps grow our local heritage tourism economy and support the downtown area’s continued revitalization.

To realize such benefits, however, it is vital that we work together to protect and facilitate efforts to document and learn from the city’s rich archaeological heritage.

This is not a new idea.  Other localities—Alexandria, Virginia and St. Augustine, Florida, to name just two—have long recognized the value and rewards of doing so, and developed a variety of regulatory- (e.g., archaeological ordinances) and incentive-based measures to ensure sustainable, long-term success.

While acknowledging that every community is unique, and that what works in one place may or may not be appropriate in another, we at HFFI, nevertheless, feel very strongly that the time has come for a similar discussion here in Fredericksburg.