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Forget tales of kinky intern escapades and D.C. Council brouhahas. Elizabeth Crowell knows all about the real dirt in the Districtor at least what’s under it. A senior archaeologist with Fairfax-based Parsons Engineering Science Inc., Crowell has been at work on an archaeological dig near the Whitehurst Freeway since the early ’80s. In that time, she’s found the remains of historical homes, schools, and warehouses, and more than 90,000 artifacts, including a remarkably realistic stone phallus. Along with the D.C. Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Crowell is also working to bring back the Washington Archaeological Society, a group for both professional and amateur archaeologists that fizzled in the late ’80s.
So, what did people do for fun around here back in A.D. 750?
We did find artifacts that were interpreted as gaming pieces. And similar artifacts have been found elsewhere. There was an account [of a game] that was written down on another site where similar artifacts were found. So we assume there was a game that was associated with these pieces.
What kind of a game?
If you think about it, it’s like prehistoric Monopoly.
What’d they use that stone phallus for?
We don’t have any clue. It was obviously ceremonial in some way. You’re talking about 12,000 years ago. Function becomes an educated guess. Things like ceramics and stuff that are more everyday, you have a better idea of how [they were] used. But we just don’t know about this.
It must be hard to secure those sites when you’re not digging, like overnight. Did you uncover anything that was clearly out of place, say, that had just fallen into the pit while you were away?
One time I’d uncovered all these artifacts from a circular pit. All of the artifacts dated to the 18th century, and it looked like it must have been a waste pit. And then when I got to the bottom of the pit, there was a red plastic squirt gun. We used it to interpret the site was more modern than we first thought.
So how do you think archaeological excavations such as these change the way people see and think about the city?
I think it gives them something to relate to and allows them to learn there’s more here than meets the eye. [D.C.] has been an area where people have come together for thousands of years.