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City will extend digging at court site

October 7, 2012 12:10 am


Fredericksburg officials have granted more time for archaeologists to investigate the city's new courthouse site after they found Civil War-era artifacts there.

The archaeologists' sampling of the property had been scheduled to wrap up Monday or thereabouts, but city staff decided late Friday to allow two more weeks so they can better investigate an antebellum building's cellar.

In one small part of that brick-and-sandstone foundation, Cultural Resources Inc. found indications that the cellar was occupied by Union soldiers.

The discovery, coming two months before the Battle of Fredericksburg's sesquicentennial, has drawn interest locally and farther afield.

The two-week extension will allow CRI's team to fully excavate the cellar of the building, which didn't appear on 19th-century tax maps and apparently was unknown to researchers. The courthouse site occupies the corner of Princess Anne and Charlotte streets.

City Manager Beverly R. Cameron disclosed the contract extension Saturday afternoon in response to a reporter's inquiry.

CRI, based in Glen Allen, had proposed sampling half the material in the cellar or completely excavating the 18- by 35-foot basement.

The city chose to proceed with the second option, Cameron said in an email Saturday.

"A full recovery option would provide the City the opportunity to interpret the cellar deposit at its fullest extent, leaving no room for speculation or risk for unrecovered material," CRI president Ellen M. Brady wrote in its proposal, released by Cameron.

The additional effort will cost about $18,910, with most of the team's time devoted to removing brick rubble from the cellar. It is supposed to be done by Oct. 19.

The building's upper walls collapsed, trapping Civil War-era artifacts beneath fallen brick and a charcoal layer.

A 5- by 5-foot excavation revealed that "the deposit is almost entirely related to the Civil War period occupation of the building," Brady wrote Friday to the city. "It appears likely that the building was destroyed during the 1862 period or shortly thereafter."

The CRI team has recovered more than 70 Minie balls, soldiers' belt buckles, sawn and cut bones from livestock (presumably eaten by the troops), and other wartime-era artifacts related to the mystery building.

Was the building damaged during the December 1862 battle, which involved urban-combat street fighting and the bombardment of the town?

What were Union soldiers doing in the cellar? When were they there, and why?

Those are among many questions the archaeologists, area historians and a growing circle of local residents have about the site.

City Council members, with Cameron, City Attorney Kathleen Dooley and project supervisor Robert Antozzi, toured the archaeological site on Wednesday.

Councilman Matt Kelly said Saturday that the contract decision came as a pleasant surprise.

He hailed the ongoing archaeological investigation, which prompts inquiries each weekday by passing pedestrians, as "an opportunity to promote the 150th-anniversary commemoration of the battle."

Kelly is a regular visitor to the dig, and has posted photos of its progress and some of its artifacts on his Facebook page.

"We should not pass up this chance to learn more about a traumatic time in our city's history, especially as we are preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg," Kelly said.

"My hope is that more of an effort will be made to keep the public informed of what has been, and will be found, on the site."

Past is Prologue blog:

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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