An archaeological map shows detail of trench locations at the Redskins training camp site. Map courtesy of Virginia Department of Historic Resources
Mayor Dwight C. Jones' clear, powerful voice parried a chorus of heckling protesters on Nov. 11. He heralded a brighter future for a weedy, graveled parking lot where they all gathered at the corner of 17th and East Grace streets.
"I am standing on home plate," declared the longtime Baptist preacher-turned-mayor, trumpeting plans for a minor-league baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. His speech didn't mention just how close he also stood to a pulpit. Christ Episcopal Church parishioners prayed at this site in the mid-1800s and later.
The protesters who lined up on East Grace Street that day stood in the historical shadow of the former Seabrook tobacco warehouse. From 1861 to 1865, according to research recently published by archaeologist Terry Brock, the warehouse served as a busy intake hospital for Confederate soldiers freshly wounded and evacuated from the field by train.
Seabrook and Christ Church aren't yet part of any modern conversation about how to preserve Shockoe Bottom's complex slave-trade history.
"Can we properly honor an area and teach people about a unique chapter in American history that has not yet been fully told?" Jones asked the crowd. Defying protesters' catcalls, he answered himself: "We can do this."
The true answer remains uncertain, according to area historians, archaeologists and officials with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, who say an even bigger question for modern Richmond is how much of that history could meet a fate similar to other important Richmond locations bulldozed in recent years.
On Jan. 4, 2013, bulldozers moved on a wooded Leigh Street site behind the Science Museum of Virginia, leveling land for the new Washington Redskins summer training camp.
A day earlier, archaeologists used the same bulldozers to open up a half-dozen trenches to peer into the place's past. According to documents and emails exchanged by state officials and various contractors on the project, the archaeologists had planned at least one week of more careful excavation, but a disagreement with the construction contractor ended that.
A Richmond Times-Dispatch article on Jan. 9, 2013, quoted the chairman of the city's economic development authority that archaeologists found "nothing of any material consequence." This triggered a letter from Elizabeth Crowell, president of the Council of Virginia Archaeologists, to then-Department of Historic Resources Director Kathleen Kilpatrick, expressing dismay at a photo in the same paper that "shows what is clearly a feature."
That feature was a Civil War earthwork, says Roger Kirchen, an archaeologist with the Department of Historic Resources' office of review and compliance. "There were some really interesting discoveries and probably more than what people had thought would be out there," he says.
That's because 150 years ago, the site was home to Camp Lee, a Civil War encampment that served as a mustering ground throughout the war. Afterward, the former military camp made African-American history, serving as a freedman's camp — a home to former slaves.
Kirchen helped issue the permit and hammer out the initial agreement for archaeology on the site. After the contractor halted the archaeology work, Kirchen also helped to craft an amended agreement allowing continued monitoring and recovery during construction.
"I think all parties were frustrated given the pace of the project and the work that had to be done," Kirchen says, expressing a belief that miscommunication caused the contractor's disagreement about allowances for archaeology. In the end, he says, many artifacts were recovered, but "it seems like the process wasn't well-coordinated."
This chain of events illustrates some commonly held public misconceptions surrounding the preservation and excavation of historic sites in the city and the state, says Julie Langan, acting director of the Department of Historic Resources since Kilpatrick's departure. "It's not that certain things just trigger archaeology," she says, noting that on many potential historic sites, there is nothing to tie those properties to state or federal regulation, especially if no buildings are left standing.
Even state or federal funds provide only for limited oversight. And there's nothing to prevent construction from proceeding regardless of what is found if the site hasn't been granted other protections.
"Oftentimes, I think it's misunderstood," Langan says. "People think there's some sort of regulation that gives us that power."
It's hardly the first time such assumptions prevented deeper exploration of a site's history. Last July, construction began on a Marriott hotel on the site of a former parking lot at the corner of 14th and Cary streets owned by the First Freedom Foundation. From the 1780s until 1800, a tobacco warehouse there served as the first Virginia General Assembly building in Richmond. Before construction started at the site, then-First Freedom Foundation President Randolph Bell told Richmond magazine that he'd been assured by the site's developer that history would take a front seat.
"It's my understanding that's carefully planned into the process," Bell told Richmond magazine in July. In fact, no archaeology was done until September, when construction digging revealed a late 19th-century safe.
Kirchen says that was the first call the state received regarding archaeology on the site — other than a call about a decade earlier during a previous plan to build. That plan fell through, but the state issued a permit and did preliminary archaeology. The earlier dig — which involved test trenches — "found intact remains that were pretty impressive" from a 19th-century building. And, he says, "earlier artifacts ... were more, perhaps, suggestive of an 18th-century undisturbed site," that had been the General Assembly building.
Bell spoke before City Council on Dec. 9, opposing the ballpark project based on the area's history. In an interview afterward, he said he was stunned to learn of earlier archaeology at the First Freedom site.
This leads Kirchen's thoughts back to the future of Shockoe Bottom. Proper archaeology could take a year or more, considering the acreage involved, he says, conflicting with Jones' 2016 deadline for the project.
City spokesman Mike Wallace says the city plans to initiate a site study as well as have "a professional archaeologist on site during excavation."
That's a hopeful sign, Kirchen says, but "I hope … they give themselves time." The proposed location is in the oldest part of the city, he notes, and building there could destroy two roads from the original city grid laid out in 1737. He adds that careful archaeology could uncover history from the city's founding. He says a history-rich dig site that's open to the public might accomplish the economic renewal Jones intends for Shockoe by relying on year-round tourism rather than seasonal baseball, while attracting visitors for a decade or more.
After all, Kirchen says, "there's got to be a lot under those parking lots.