Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni

Human activity in the District of Columbia pre-dates the formation of the city itself. Early inhabitants left artifacts and traces of rituals, gatherings that continue to be unearthed today. We talk with D.C.’s archaeologist about the number and diversity of significant historic sites throughout the city and speak with a parks advocate about being good stewards of those sites today.


  • Ruth Trocolli City Archaeologist, Historic Preservation Office, D.C. Office of Planning
  • Stephen Coleman Executive Director, Washington Parks & People


  • 13:06:40

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo.

  • 13:07:01

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONILater in the hour, the little recognized global influences in Mexican cuisine. Chef and cookbook author, Patty Jinich, is here. But first, a look at what archaeologists can tell us about our city's history.

  • 13:07:13

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIHuman activity in the District of Columbia predates the formation of the city itself. Early inhabitants and visitors left traces of the rituals and gatherings that brought them to the area. Artifacts ranging from tobacco pipes and bottles and you might be surprised where people find ancient skeletal remains around town.

  • 13:07:31

    MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIThese glimpses of the past dot the city's current landscape and as development continues apace, keeping tabs of the findings is a full time affair. In fact, it's our guests' job. Joining us about the number of and diversity of significant historic sites throughout the city is Ruth Trocolli. You're the archaeologist for the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office and we're really excited to have you here. Thanks so much Ruth.

  • 13:07:57

    MS. RUTH TROCOLLIHi, Christina. Thank you for the opportunity to be on the program. I'm very excited to talk about what I do as the city archaeologist in Historic Preservation Office. People are very surprised to learn that the District has an archaeologist at all and that there is such a rich historic and prehistoric archaeological record under their feet.

  • 13:08:23

    MS. RUTH TROCOLLIMy job consists basically of four different areas and I review a variety of projects of under the, as part of the state Historic Preservation Office. And also review District government projects mostly for schools and parks and publicly owned lands. And I manage all the information on the archaeological record in the city including the Archaeological Reports Library.

  • 13:08:54

    MS. RUTH TROCOLLIThe state site forms, all the GIS data we create and I manage all the archaeological collections. And finally, I do outreach in education. So, for example, I'm here today to tell you in more detail about the archaeology itself.

  • 13:09:11

    BELLANTONIExcellent. Do you suspect there might be a historically significant site in your neighborhood? You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email You can always get in touch with us through our Facebook page or send a tweet to @kojoshow.

  • 13:09:30

    BELLANTONISo Ruth, diving into some of the things that you've outlined there, this city is old with a history that predates its official founding. What kind of archaeological finds and sites are the most common within the District?

  • 13:09:43

    TROCOLLIWell, there is a lot of archaeology related to the initial years of the District, from the very founding, the L'Enfant Plan, the initial development of the city, the infrastructure, the sewers and the canal, those kinds of things. But then if you peel back the layer and you go back a little bit earlier you have pre-District and you the colonial area.

  • 13:10:06

    TROCOLLISo we have Georgetown which was a historic port that predated the city and there's been a lot of very interesting archaeology there related to the initial inhabitants and the establishment of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. And then if you peel that back a little bit earlier you get the very early colonial period when Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac and met the Native Americans who were here at that time.

  • 13:10:32

    TROCOLLIAnd a little bit earlier than that you have your Native American or American Indian occupation that spans the whole time period of North American prehistory, going back to the Paleo-Indian period. So we're talking 12,000 to 16,000 years.

  • 13:10:50

    BELLANTONIWow, and when people hear, you know, these terms and prehistoric, that sounds a little like dinosaurs but what exactly are we talking about? what types of people?

  • 13:10:59

    TROCOLLIWell, these would be Native Americans, people that were here when European colonists arrived. Some people call them, you know, First Nations, First Peoples, American Indians and this area was heavily populated at the time of European contact. And the area around the District was very, very fortuitous place to live.

  • 13:11:23

    TROCOLLIIt was at the junction of two rivers and even during the Ice Age there was always water in the two rivers, the Anacostia and the Potomac, and that just made it a really good place to be. And you have the falls of the Potomac just upstream from Georgetown and that area was where the fish would swim up the rivers to spawn.

  • 13:11:44

    TROCOLLINow, the fish were similar to salmon. We had Shad here and in the springtime they would swim up river to spawn and they would fill the rivers with these fish that were seeking their original, the area where they were born so they could mate and it was just a wonderful place for people to meet and to fish, to harvest all the food in a short amount of time.

  • 13:12:09

    TROCOLLIAnd people would meet, they would have their weddings and their funerals and their feasts and their celebration and dances. And those are some of the larger sites we find that are from the prehistoric time period.

  • 13:12:19

    BELLANTONIAnd of course where people lived and had their community they often bury their loved ones when they pass away. what sort of burial grounds have been found around Washington?

  • 13:12:28

    TROCOLLIWell, not very much from the prehistoric time period. The cemeteries that we have found and the burials we have found are from the historic period. And, you know, as a city even when it was just Georgetown and now it's the District, many, many people lived here and many more people died here through the years.

  • 13:12:47

    TROCOLLIAnd so there have been quite a number of cemeteries and just as aside, if you're interested in the cemeteries of the District, we recently came out with a brochure on the cemeteries of Washington D.C. and it's an absolutely fascinating subject and in the 19th century there was a whole movement to make cemeteries parks where people could enjoy the outdoors.

  • 13:13:12

    TROCOLLIThey would have picnics, they had lovely curving roads, they planted special trees and there still are a few cemeteries like that. but many of the cemeteries closed and have, the property has been reused. And so one of the things that we run into, not infrequently is the unexpected discovery of burials in places like people's backgrounds and underneath parks and on school grounds.

  • 13:13:38

    BELLANTONIThat's the perfect segue way to bring in someone who happened upon one such site. We have on the line with us Steve Coleman. He's the executive director of Washington Parks and People, an organization that leads greening initiatives across the city to help revitalize parks and communities around them. Steve, your organization has been working in Walter Pearce Park for decades but in 2001 there was a game changing discovery. What happened?

  • 13:14:05

    MR. STEVEN COLEMANTrash, there had been some 30 tons dumped on the side of the park next to Rock Creek in Adams Morgan and one of our young volunteers came up to me holding a large bone and I said, "Wow, that's a huge deer bone." And fortunately there was a nurse there who knew human anatomy better than me and she said, "No, that's a human femur."

  • 13:14:28

    MR. STEVEN COLEMANAnd our initial thought was that this might be part of Chandra Levy because it was right during that time when she had disappeared and everyone was thinking her remains might be in Rock Creek Park. But the nurse said that we didn't need to call the police because she could tell that the bone was very old.

  • 13:14:47


  • 13:14:47

    COLEMANAnd it turned out it was the tip of the iceberg. In ensuing weeks and months we found parts of seven other people just trying to clean up. Every time it rained it seemed like there were more bones being revealed and it turned out, we had happened upon the largest uncharted African American cemetery in the city. A total of at least 8,428 men, women and mostly children buried underneath that park.

  • 13:15:16

    BELLANTONIRuth Trocolli, please weigh in, why is this historically significant at Walter Pearce Park?

  • 13:15:23

    TROCOLLIWell, the cemetery was founded in the period right after the Civil War. Many of the people that were on the cemetery trustees were former slaves and so many formerly enslaved people were buried there and it was for 20 years very, very active, very busy.

  • 13:15:40

    TROCOLLIAnd then at the end of that time period about, around 1890 it just, people had moved out of the area and it was fairly full. I mean, 8,000 people on seven, a little over seven acres of land. That is a huge number and the cemetery eventually be, just, it wasn't exactly closed but it just was no longer active.

  • 13:16:06

    BELLANTONISteve Coleman of Washington Parks and People, any time a burial site is discovered there are lots of issues that come with that so what are some of the main concerns surrounding the Pearce Park site and is there any consensus on what residents want to see done there?

  • 13:16:19

    COLEMANWell, first of all we were concerned about being sure to not lose these remains that were about to washed down into the creek. And so we had to collect them and document where we found them and then eventually we were able to get Howard University involved and a wonderful late professor there named Mark Mach, to help us with documenting what was happening.

  • 13:16:41

    COLEMANAnd the hope is that eventually we'll be able to, the plan is eventually we'll repatriate the remains. But the bigger challenge is, how do we get back to that idea that Ruth mentioned about the cemetery also being a place where people can gather and celebrate those who are buried there. How can it be both a park and a cemetery?

  • 13:17:01

    COLEMANSo one of the things we'll be doing next, we've been completing ground penetrating radar and other archaeological research. A local researcher named Mary Belcher has been drafting a report. But a next stage in the work that's been underwritten by the city government is developing a comprehensive master plan for the park and the cemetery together.

  • 13:17:21

    COLEMANSo we'll look at both the city land and the adjacent lands that are under the control of the National Zoo and the National Park Service. And the hope is that we can both right this old injustice of these 140 years that have gone by without any commemoration of these people's lives and at the same time protect the remains and provide a way for people to make the park and the cemetery a part of their daily lives.

  • 13:17:45

    COLEMANIt's an interesting balancing act but it's one that I think that the public really supports. We had an amazing gathering on D.C. Emancipation Day where we lit 2,000 luminaries in honor of the people underneath the park and it was just such an incredible outpouring of emotion from folks in the community and across the city who had no idea of the significance of this site. There is a common sense that we can move forward on both fronts together.

  • 13:18:13

    BELLANTONIYou can weigh in, what should be done with sites like this one? Join the conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at You can always leave a comment on our Facebook page or send a tweet to @kojoshow. We will continue our conversation about D.C.'s early inhabitants and the remains they leave behind in just a moment after this short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," I'm Christina Bellantoni from the PBS News Hour.

  • 13:20:22

    BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour and we are talking about what artifacts that can be found in archaeological digs as the city is under development are being found in our very own city at Washington, D.C. We're talking with D.C.'s chief archaeologist Ruth Trocolli. And have you found something in your backyard, anything unusual, any remnants or trinkets there? Give us a call and weigh in, 1-800-433-8850.

  • 13:20:48

    BELLANTONISo Ruth Trocolli, you primarily work on big planned out projects in specific areas but some of these neighborhoods are homes to lots of treasures as well. If someone is gardening and finds something what should they do?

  • 13:21:01

    TROCOLLIWell, we encourage people to call and report those kinds of finds because it helps if we map them in. And then we sort of understand the bigger picture beyond what just you might find in your backyard. And it helps us fill out the picture of what happened on one property at one time, and it enriches the past for everyone. Now what you find in your backyard belongs to you. It's -- especially if you're a private property owner. The government wouldn't come in an confiscate it or take it but it is the recording of it and fitting it into the bigger picture that's really important.

  • 13:21:35

    TROCOLLISo I'd encourage you to drop me an email or send me a photo, something like that and we'll try to identify what you have and what time period it comes from and why it's important.

  • 13:21:49

    BELLANTONIWe've got a caller from Maryland who wants to ask a question to the chief archaeologist of Washington, D.C. Go ahead. Say your name and you're on the line.

  • 13:21:58

    UNIDENTIFIED MANIs this (word?) with Laurel?

  • 13:22:01


  • 13:22:01


  • 13:22:04

    BELLANTONIGo ahead with your question.

  • 13:22:05

    MAN...very much. I lived in the city 57 years in various parts, you know, Adams, Morgan, Georgetown, DuPont Circle. And I was born at Columbia Woman's Hospital but there are many areas that I lived that I know in the last 100 years were either jazz clubs or after-hour clubs or houses of ill repute. And I'm curious -- well, I'm -- I have found some remnants. You know, nothing particularly valuable, you know, like the bombs in AU Park or -- but I'm -- first, let me ask your email address. I didn't catch that.

  • 13:22:47

    TROCOLLIOh, my email address is my name

  • 13:22:52

    MANOkay. And I guess briefly, the only other thing, I was close friends with President Taft's great nephew and visited the Taft house many times. And I saws on PBS last night that Cleveland Park was named for Grover Cleveland's summer home. I've also visited Lincoln's summer home, which is at the VA hospital. So I'm more curious about recent archaeology than ancient archaeology. Thank you very much.

  • 13:23:24

    BELLANTONIThanks for calling.

  • 13:23:25

    TROCOLLIWell, we have a wide range of historic archaeology in the district. And some of the places that you mentioned, there's been archaeological work at the old Columbia Woman's Hospital. There was an archaeological project there when the property was redeveloped. And President Lincoln's cottage, they did a fabulous renovation of the house. If you haven't been there, it's a national trust property. It's wonderful. And they did archaeology in the grounds as part of that.

  • 13:23:53

    TROCOLLIEvery time you dig the grounds up on a historic site we worry about what you might uncover. So they were laying in a fiber optic cable and they found archaeological remains from the time period when Lincoln occupied the house. So we think about archaeology on the big scale of the whole city, and then at the very fine scale of, well, the width of a fiber optic cable.

  • 13:24:20

    BELLANTONIWe have lots of information on our website as well as to how you can get in contact with Ruth Trocolli, the chief archaeologist for Washington, D.C. And you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850, send an email to, comment on our Facebook page or send a Tweet to @kojoshow. Matt in Old Town Alexandria had an interesting discovery recently. Go ahead, Matt. Thanks for joining us.

  • 13:24:45

    MATTHi. Yeah, so I had my lawn landscaped and I found an old milk bottle that was from Alexandria dairy. That was just kind of interesting. I think the dairy had closed like in the 1920s. And, yeah, I think (unintelligible) . But that was just a whole interesting find. But the -- my main question was, I live across from what is now the Freedman Cemetery site that there -- I think it's national parks are redoing it. It's at Washington Street at the beltway.

  • 13:25:14

    MATTAnd I think that that predates, you know, when, you know, Alexandria used to be part of D.C. So I was wondering how the district handles those kind of sites, like if it's a district site that was, you know, from 200 years ago that, you know, now happens to be in Virginia. Is there any collaboration there?

  • 13:25:33

    BELLANTONIThanks, Matt. Ruth Trocolli.

  • 13:25:35

    TROCOLLIWell, the Freedman burial grounds is a very important site. And the city of Alexandria is working very hard to memorialize that. And unfortunately it was disturbed during the renovation of the Wilson Bridge and 495. There's an important group in Alexandria, Alexandria Archaeology. And they're part of the city government. And they are primarily the ones responsible for the work there. And I give them a shout out because they do wonderful work. And they do a lot of public outreach, the kind of things that I have a hard time doing because I'm just one person.

  • 13:26:14

    TROCOLLIThey have a staff of four people, wonderful volunteers. They have a museum in the torpedo factory. And I'm highly jealous of them. And the burials at Walter Pierce Park are from a later time period than the Freedman burial grounds.

  • 13:26:32

    BELLANTONIThanks. And Dawn, you're in Palisades and you found some things as well.

  • 13:26:39

    DAWNYes. My -- the house that I live in is on the edge of the Palisade overlooking the river. And it's been in my husband's family since the late '30s. And his grandfather did a lot of landscape work. He was a landscape architect who worked for the federal government. And in his own yard he -- we have a whole box full of arrowheads and spearheads that we've dug up in our yard. And also when we rototilled to reseed our lawn, we found a civil war two-cent coin that looked like it hadn't been used at all, like it just fell out of somebody's pocket but hadn't been used.

  • 13:27:26

    DAWNThere's an anthropologist named David Clark from Catholic University -- at least he used to be there -- who taught at the science at the neighborhood school, key School. And he told us -- he saw our collection -- he told us that the spear points are from the broad spear culture which, if I remember correctly, is about 2000 BC. And he had done a dig at the lab school, which is just up the road from us and said that essentially this whole area was a manufacturing area for spearheads and arrowheads, I assume for thousands of years because of its position just below the little falls and, you know, good access to the river.

  • 13:28:20

    BELLANTONIGreat find. Thanks, Dawn, for calling. Ruth Trocolli.

  • 13:28:23

    TROCOLLIDawn, I'd love to talk to you more off the air. Please give me a call or drop me an email. The Palisades area is -- was a very wonderful place to live for prehistoric Native-Americans because of the proximity to the river and the rocks that you could access there that you couldn't find in the coastal plain in the sands. So you could have the -- you could find the raw material to make stone tools. And so David Clark is absolutely right and that the broad spear culture is traditional archaic or terminal archaic.

  • 13:28:56

    TROCOLLIAnd those -- we assume or we interpret that those types of stone tools were used in fishing and in that river complex.

  • 13:29:06

    BELLANTONIAnd, in fact, a lot of the things that people are finding, whether it's in their backyards or in big developments, signal a lot about how people lived their lives. We were looking at something that you talked about a little while ago, this former brothel that was uncovered. Tell us a little bit about how that was found and what types of things signal what had gone on there.

  • 13:29:26

    TROCOLLIWell, first I have to ask you, which formal brothel because there were actually two. There were brothels uncovered that were in the federal triangle area. And there was also a very famous brothel that was found where the Museum of the American Indian is today. And that's the -- the woman who kept the brothel is actually buried in Congressional Cemetery.

  • 13:29:50

    BELLANTONIMaryann Hall, right?

  • 13:29:51

    TROCOLLIYes, that's right. And so it's a very interesting story. And they actually found artifacts when -- related to the brothel when they were doing the excavations before the museum was constructed on the mall.

  • 13:30:06

    BELLANTONIYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850, send a Tweet to @kojoshow or email Carlos lives in Adams Morgan, not very far from this Walter Pierce sign. And we still have Steve Coleman from Washington Parks and People on the line. So Carlos, go ahead and ask your question about Walter Pierce Park.

  • 13:30:28

    CARLOSWell, thank you for having me on the air. I'm a born and raised Adams Morgan person. It's very rare but we do exist. And I used to hang out at Walter Pierce Park for a long time when I was a little kid. And it was always said there was an ancient Indian burial ground. And that's kind of the story we had as kids, that it was an Indian burial ground and you couldn't take anything because you know what happened in the movies.

  • 13:30:54

    CARLOSAnd so I wanted to know what the truth behind that burial ground was. But on top of that, I used to go to (unintelligible) bilingual multicultural learning center which used to be on -- in the Calvary Methodist Church on Columbia Road. And when they were excavating in the alley before, like, the new condos and new buildings between Columbia Road and Irving, behind the church they found these huge metal boxes or coffins underneath the dirt. But there was never a cemetery for the church.

  • 13:31:27

    CARLOSAnd I was wondering if anyone could clear up what was in there, if they had found bodies, if they had found artifacts or whatnot. Because I just remember being a kid and it was a huge thing that these big metal boxes were found in the dirt behind the church in the alley.

  • 13:31:40

    BELLANTONIThanks for raising that, Carlos. We're going to go to Steve Coleman in a moment. But, Ruth Trocolli, you are nodding as we mention these big crates.

  • 13:31:48

    TROCOLLIWell, first of all, the -- just to say, in Walter Pierce Park there were two cemeteries. There was a Quaker burial ground and the African-American cemetery. But not an Indian burial ground as far as I know. There were Indian burials in other parts of the city but not there as far as we know. But when you mentioned around Columbia Road and the iron boxes, there was an iron coffin that was found around 2004. So I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're talking about. It was one alley over from the church. And we call this the iron coffin boy find. And it was a small mummiform iron coffin from the period about 1851.

  • 13:32:33

    TROCOLLIAnd it was discovered literally between two apartment buildings. It's kind of crazy. And what it appears to be is the remnant of a small cemetery that was related to the predecessor of George Washington University, which was called the Columbian College. And it was up on a hill above Meridian Hill Park area in Columbia Heights. And they had a small cemetery. And it was moved once and then it was moved a second time, we think about -- I think the 1880s. And that's when this iron coffin was left behind.

  • 13:33:13

    TROCOLLIThey seem to have gotten the rest of them, which are now in Oak Hill Cemetery but this one was left behind. And the Smithsonian, the Department of Anthropology in the Natural History Museum took the coffin and they analyzed it. They did exhaustive research. Dr. Dave Hunt, Deb. Howolski (sp?) and Doug Ausley (sp?) and they used interns and all kinds of people. And they were eventually able to pin a name on the boy in the coffin. And it's a fabulous story. And he is now with the Smithsonian at the Natural History Museum.

  • 13:33:50

    BELLANTONISteve Coleman of Washington Parks and People, any final thoughts on Walter Pierce Park?

  • 13:33:55

    COLEMANWell, it's part of a vast system. When you think about the fact that we're looking at at least 800 generations of people who've preceded us here in Washington, everywhere you look, every square inch of soil has a part of our past in it. And you don't have to be a professional archaeologist to be observant. We've had second grade kids out on cleanups who found animal bones and artifacts and fossils.

  • 13:34:19

    COLEMANAnd, in fact, this Saturday we'll have a chance to walk from the Palisades area at Fletcher's Cove, which was an ancient Native-American fishing site, up the escarpment, the fall line across Meridian Hill. If anyone's interested they can come out at 7:00 this Saturday morning at Fletcher's Cove or they can email us at It truly is an amazing time to live here. And we're very grateful for the work that Ruth and her colleagues are doing to lead this all over the city.

  • 13:34:48

    BELLANTONIThat's great. And we will post all of those links on our website And we've also got some questions about where D.C. students can see some of these things, so we'll post that as well. Thank you very much to Steven Coleman, the executive director of Washington Parks and People. And Ruth Tricolli, the archaeologist for the city of Washington, D.C.'s preservation office. I'm Christina Bellantoni sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Stay with us. After this short break we'll be back with chef and author Pati Jinich. Thanks very much.

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