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City of Alexandria, VA City of Alexandria, VA
Historic Alexandria
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Page updated Dec 6, 2010 6:06 PM
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Juggling real world with the past

September 5, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Jaw harp discovered in the archaeological excavation of Benjamin Banneker's house cellar attests to the astronomer/ mathematician's love of music. Courtesy, Maryland Historical Trust.
I can remember trying to choose my future course of studies at UCLA. Which would it be, history or international relations? The first subject was my great love, but somehow seemed divorced from the real world. International relations, on the other hand offered knowledge of many cultures and the chance to apply it to real situations. As it fumed out I selected ancient history and added anthropology courses to satisfy my yearnings about other cultures. When I finally selected archaeology, I discovered that I was blending the study of the old with management of real life situations. In the last 30 years archaeologists have come out from their intellectual havens to juggle competing needs: preservation vs. development, academic knowledge vs. Native Americans' rights.

Not all archaeological applications are confrontational. In Alexandria we have enjoyed 35 years of community dialogue which has saved some places (e.g., part of Fort Ellsworth), developed others (e.g., Fort Williams), and reconstructed still others (e.g., Alexandria Canal Tide Lock). Archaeology can add to the amenities of a community, which provide a far more livable environment. One of the most exciting outcomes of archaeological work is the creation of historic parks, which we have at Fort Ward, the Canal Lock and the African American Heritage Park.

Now in Baltimore County, Maryland, a new historic park is planned on 42.8 acres of Benjamin Banneker's farm. Archaeological work conducted by he Maryland Historical Trust assisted in determining the location of Banneker's childhood home (1731-ca. 1780) and his own home, cat 1780- 1806. Robert Hurry of the Trust has been able to compare the Banneker family's diet to that of Benjamin as a single, aging man. Based upon the faunal study by David Clark, he finds that the free African American family in the mid1700s ate predominately beef, pork and chicken supplemented with wild species such as perch, oysters, gray squirrel and turkey. However, Banneker's later house site yielded a diet of less diversity. Pork bones were predominate, with only a few oyster shells and white perch.

Fortunately, an account book has survived for two years (1775-1776) of the Ellicott Store where Banneker and his mother made purchases. His own records for 1799-1803 also are preserved. The store accounts indicate that the Bannekers did not buy any meat. They must have relied on their own livestock, orchards, and crops. But as Banneker aged and became more interested in astronomy and writing his almanacs, he purchased meat, particularly pork, from the nearby store.

The Bannekers were originally tobacco farmers, and apparently they also were consumers of the crop as well. More than 600 kaolin pipe fragments were found in the excavation. Benjamin stopped farming tobacco, as many people did in this region, and eventually purchased his tobacco from the Ellicott Store. Many other personal items associated with

Banneker were also unearthed, including buttons, buckles and thimbles. His great literacy level is evidenced by many slate pencils and a ground glass optical lens. A piece of a jaw harp was unearthed, although no evidence of either the violin or flute he played.

The archaeological objects may be the only ones used for education in the park. Banneker bequeathed his belongings to the Ellicott family, lifelong Quaker friends. The Washington Post announced that C.G. Sloan auction house will sell more than 20 of these items, including his table, on September 6-8. One Banneker's descendants states: "We feel very strongly that these are treasures that belong to the world. "

Historic Alexandria Administration
Lloyd House
220 North Washington Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
703.746.4554
Fax: 703.838.6451
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