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Raiders of the Back Yard: Alexandria struggles with amateur archaeologists

Pipkin from a local privy (image via AlexArchaeology/Twitter)

While the prospect of buried treasure in the back yard sounds appealing, Alexandria leaders say amateur treasure hunting is hindering historic preservation efforts.

At a City Council meeting last night, Mayor Justin Wilson said the Alexandria Archaeological Commission has expressed concerns about items taken from homes in Old Town that belong in a museum.

“Folks are going around in Old Town and offering to excavate privies folks have on their property,” Wilson said. “As a city that values professional archaeology and what we might discover, interpret and protect from archaeological digs, I know the commission is very concerned about the potential impacts of this backyard archaeology that can occur.”

City Archaeologist Eleanor Breen said in recent years, non-professional “bottle diggers” have targeted homes with back yards in Old Town. Former outhouses are a prime area of focus for archaeological work, featuring many items discarded that help tell the story of everyday life in a given period of history.

Breen said the city has been doing outreach in-person at local farmers’ markets and virtual outreach via the city website to try to connect homeowners with proper resources. The city also has a 311 network

“It’s a difficult conversation with property owners because they’re excited, but we want to make sure we protect these historic artifacts,” Wilson said. “We want to make sure folks are doing this wisely.”

Council member Kirk McPike noted that the 311 report system for “sinkhole on property” could make Alexandria the first city in the country with a virtual reporting system focused on historical bathrooms.

“It’s a privy category,” Wilson said. “If ever there’s a community that has that down, it’s ours.”

Image via AlexArchaeology/Twitter