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Washington's city archaeologist on the secrets beneath the nation's capital


Ruth Trocolli, the District of Columbia's Historic Preservation Office Archaeologist (Courtesy Ruth Trocolli)

The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's latest thriller, The Lost Symbol, purports to reveal the secret Masonic history of the nation's capital, thrusting its protagonists into the hidden chambers, tunnels, and temples of Washington, D.C. To get a sense of what historical mysteries this city actually holds, ARCHAEOLOGY's Eric A. Powell turned to Ruth Trocolli, the District of Columbia's Historic Preservation Office Archaeologist.

How is the urban archaeology of Washington, D.C., unique?

The founding and development of the city itself are pretty unique. The district is based on a grid laid down in 1791 east of the tobacco port of Georgetown on the Potomac River. But what really kicked off development was the Civil War. Escaped slaves flocked to D.C. and set up their own camps, called freedman or contraband camps. After the war, these developed into the African-American neighborhoods that are still here today.

Have any excavations been conducted in the contraband camps?

There's great interest in that, since it's such an important part of the city's history. Archaeology could give us a sense of the these neighborhoods' development and reconnect residents to their past.

Are there other periods where you'd like to see more archaeology done?

We haven't found any Paleoindian sites, just a few isolated artifacts. But we're developing a model of where these sites might be. During future projects, we'll target landforms and surfaces where we might begin to find them. That will involve deeper testing than has been done in the past.

Are there sites you know about that have yet to be found in the district?

Yes! In a 1608 map, John Smith noted an Algonquian village here called Nacotchtank. He placed it on the eastern shore of the Anacostia River, near areas of proposed modern developments. Nacotchtank was there somewhere. It would be great to find it.

When one thinks of Washington, D.C., one naturally thinks of the National Mall. Are there any interesting archaeological sites there?

Most of the Mall is really landfill, but there are some sites. In the '90s, the archaeological firm John Milner and Associates excavated at the future home of the American Museum of the American Indian. They discovered a little 19th-century neighborhood nestled in the shadow of the Capitol that included the remains of a famous brothel run by Mary Ann Hall. She was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in 1886. There's a great website that tells the whole To kick it up a notch, the firm also worked at Federal Triangle and identified another neighborhood where prostitutes were present; they were the source of the word "hooker," owing to their proximity to Union General Hooker's troops. The archaeology of prostitution is interesting, but that's not to take away from other archaeological studies in the district that have explored ethnicity and how people survived in hand-to-mouth circumstances.

Have there been any surprising discoveries in the past few years?

In 1864 the Confederate general Jubal Early's raiders snuck into the district and attacked Fort Stevens, part of Rock Creek Park. The National Park Service did a controlled metal-detector survey there and identified locations of defensive and offensive positions based on the presence of spent ammunition. That's pretty amazing considering it's a public park.

Dan Brown's book deals with the history of the Masons. Have you ever encountered Masonic artifacts?

Oh sure, I've seen excavated ceramics from other places, such as pitchers and printed cream wares, that have Masonic symbols on them. It's not the stuff of thrillers.

In Europe, historical sites mentioned in The Da Vinci Code have been flooded with tourists who have read the book. Are you bracing for something similar?

We have historical tours of Washington, D.C., for every conceivable historical interest. I think now we are going to have to develop a Masonic one.