In archaeology, the bottom is tops
March 23, 1995
By Pamela Cressey
A worker examines the bottom of the brick shaft at the Lee-Fendall House during an archaeological excavation.
Photo/courtesy Alexandria Archaeology
Archaeologists look at history upside down. Usually history is viewed from the earliest time to the most recent. For instance, a course in American history moves from the colonial to the Cold War years. But archaeologists must dig through layers of the newest artifacts to get to the oldest. Typically, soil and artifacts are layered in the ground from the oldest on the bottom to the most recent on the top. This is called the principle of superposition.
So when city archaeologists and volunteers began excavating at the Lee-Fendall House in 1986, we encountered 20th century artifacts first. While our excavations were conducted across the yard, the majority of the time was spent digging in the brick-lined shaft that once provided the house’s water supply.
Once thought to be too modern for historical interest, 20th-century artifacts have taken on greater significance as the century draws to a close. Artifacts 80, 90, or 100 years old represent a lifestyle that has long disappeared, especially in urban locales such as Alexandria.
The Lee-Fendall house was occupied by very interesting families in the 20th century until its use as a museum in 1974. Our goal was to unearth and interpret the artifacts associated with all the house’s occupants, including those from the 20th century. We were excited to find that the first artifacts out of the well were indeed associated with a family of this century.
Who did live in the Lee-Fendall House in the 1900s? T. Michael Miller’s history, “Visitors from the Past,” answers the question.
For a few years before its purchase and use as a museum, the Votaw family rented the property.
From 1937 to 1969 John L. Lewis lived there with his wife, Myrta and daughter Catherine. He was a national figure as president of the United Mine Workers.
Before the Lewis family, the Robert Downham household lived in the house from 1906 to 1931. Downham took over his father’s wholesale liquor business. E.E. Downham had migrated to Alexandria from New Jersey, and served as a member of the common council, as mayor and as president of the German Co-Operative Building Association. He was also active in Masonic groups.
Love brought Robert to the house. While courting his future wife, Mai, he overheard her close friend and resident of the house, Myra Civalier, begging her to purchase the property. Mai and Myra were both singers and performed in the operettas and musicals. When Robert overheard the conversation, he promised to buy the house if Mai married him.
As we stared our excavation of the Lee-Fendall well, it was the Downham family’s artifacts that we first discovered. Join me next week to learn more about the Downhams from the upside-down history of archaeological investigation.
Visit the Lee-Fendall House at 614 Oronoco Street. For information on the historic site, telephone 548-1789.
Pamelia Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.