Archeologists find artifacts at Fairfax County site that was a bustling port


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Centreville resident Karen Schweikart digs history. Bent over a shallow pit on a recent Saturday morning, Schweikart, with a garden trowel and metal dust pan, performed the slow and meticulous task of archeology.

Volunteers Tom Knock and Patricia I. Knock search for artifacts at the Colchester Park site in southern Fairfax County. She was working to exhume what remains of a colonial era building that might help historians learn more about the port town of Colchester.

“It’s fun to be out here with people who love history as much as we do,” said Schweikart, one of several volunteers from Northern Virginia who visit the site on the Occoquan River in Fairfax County.

Colchester once was a bustling port to which tobacco planters from southern plantations would bring their crop for export to England. Later, wheat and other commodities were shipped from the port.

Capt. John Smith, an explorer who is probably best known for helping establish the Jamestown settlement, also is believed to have visited the site in 1608 when he explored the Occoquan River, encountering several Native American tribes, according to historians leading work at Colchester.

“This would have been one of the hubs” for tobacco shipment, said Christopher Sperling, a county archeologist who is historic field director for the site. “Tobacco was the lifeblood of the Virginia colony. We’re finding aspects of what was used early on in the colonial port town.”

The site is owned and operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority. The purchase of the 135-acre lot in April 2007 for $9.52 million was financed by bond money, agency spokesman Matthew Kaiser said.

The property, which includes a house used as a residence for archeologists, was purchased from developers and included the largest parcels of undeveloped land remaining in private ownership in the Mount Vernon District, according to Park Authority officials.

Archeologists are evaluating the site for potential inclusion in the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

The Park Authority budgeted $480,000 for the study of the Colchester site. Once the dig and study of Colchester is complete, public forums and plans for the future of the park will begin, said Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pederson, adding that no plans to develop the site exist.

“The county had the foresight to realize [that] if this area was allowed to be developed, we could lose this history,” Sperling said.

The key difference between this site and others he has worked on, he added, is that “because it’s not threatened [by pending development], I can take my time and do the best work I can.”

Stephan Woehlke, an archeologist with the Colchester Archeological Research Team carefully removes dirt from an 18th century feature of the port town of Colchester. County archeologist Aimee Wells said she and other archeologists have been performing archeology in Fairfax County for 30 years as part of the county’s development process. Fairfax is among the few Virginia jurisdictions – including Alexandria, Richmond and Loudoun County – that employ archeological teams, Wells said.

Colchester, chartered in 1753, was one of the first towns in Fairfax County. The county was established 11 years earlier.

Colchester began to fail as a port when an alternate postal route over a new bridge upstream was laid in 1805, according to the historical marker at the site. Additionally, neighboring ports such as Alexandria and Baltimore took business away from Colchester. A fire in 1815 also contributed to the town’s decline.

Since breaking ground in October, volunteers and county archeologists have found pieces of pottery, bricks and other remnants. “What I’m really interested in is the development of trade in this port during this time period,” Sperling said.

From digging, archeologists and historians gain a perspective not included in written accounts of life 200 years ago, he said. All too often, the dominant voices are those of white men, leaving out those of women, blacks and Native Indians, Sperling said.

“We have this image of tobacco ports, with these ships coming in, with their masts and these men with grand clothes. But who’s loading these ships? It’s the slaves,” he said.

Officials believe a storage cellar that is thought to be beneath a caved-in brick structure could contain clues about life during colonial times.

“I use this example of visiting someone’s parlor,” Sperling said. “It’s nice, things are on display. It shows the best of things. But if you go through the trash, that’s the real day-to-day life.”

On Nov. 20, volunteers were finding history about a foot deep in the earth.

“There are a lot of artifacts out here. It’s great,” said Schweikart, who volunteers with the Archeological Society of Virginia’s Northern Virginia chapter. “Some sites, you don’t find stuff very often.”

“This is just the beginning,” Sperling said, adding that work at the site is heavily assisted by volunteers. “The big unveiling will be how we interpret the findings.”

An open house will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Old Colchester Park and Preserve. Visitors will be able to ask questions about the history of the area and get information about projects there. To join the dig, e-mail Sperling at [email protected]. For information, visit

Author: Holly Hobbs | Source: The Washington Post [December 05, 2010]



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