National Capital Region Archeology Program

Prehistoric Native American stylized fish petroglyph (rock carving) Great Falls, Maryland

Field excavations at
Harmony Hall
Prince Georges County, Maryland

Stratigraphic profile showing soil deposits as they developed over time
Harmony Hall, Prince Georges County, Maryland

Ruins of mill site
Short Hill, Virginia
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

The Naval Battery (gun emplacement)
Maryland Heights
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

The National Capital Region (NCR) of the National Park Service administers 78,000 acres of parklands in portions of Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. These 11 parks in and around our nation's capital contain an incredible variety of archeological remains representing more than 12,500 years of changing human lifeways and different cultures -- prehistoric workshops, stone quarries, campsites, and villages; sites of seventeenth- through nineteenth-century plantations, houses, kilns, mills, forges, and foundries; numerous Civil War sites such as battlefields, fortifications, and campgrounds; and the ruins of nineteenth-century canal structures. The National Capital Region's Archeology Program (RAP) provides for the study, protection, preservation, and interpretation of archeological sites and their collections located in or collected from NCR's parks. The major activities of the RAP include: locating previously unknown archeological sites by conducting surveys; evaluating the relative significance of specific sites for possible nomination to the National Register of Historic Places (a listing of significant cultural resources); processing, cataloging, analyzing, and caring for archeological collections; volunteer participation in field and laboratory work; public interpretation; and, protecting archeological resources through public education and enforcement of Federal historic preservation laws.

In the NCR, archeological excavations may be carried out by the RAP at park request, prior to ground disturbing activities, or to answer specific research questions about the past. These investigations may combine archeology with other disciplines to gain a better understanding of the area and the people who once lived here.

An archeologist recovers and interprets the artifacts of our past. Historic archeology may use written history to relate the traditional account of a person or event, oral history to recount the past by the people who lived it, and architectural studies to describe buildings or landscapes. Drawing on all of this information, the archeologist endeavors to reveal the intangible aspects of past human cultures that may not have been recorded in written history. Objects with known manufacturing dates can lend insight into when a site was occupied. Bones, seeds, and bottles can help reveal what people ate. Other artifacts can give information about what people were purchasing and what they were making. These objects may also be associated with oral history accounts of everyday life.

Prehistoric archeology is concerned with the period in human history before written records. In the Nation's Capital, this is usually considered the time before 1600 AD. To piece together the past, prehistoric archeology relies on carefully developed cultural chronologies - the study of change in artifacts over time. Archeologically recovered plant and animal remains provide valuable knowledge about the foods consumed by prehistoric peoples. The arrangement of houses within sites and of sites over the landscape can tell us something about the way prehistoric peoples used the land and organized themselves, socially and politically. Though they have no written records to assist them, prehistoric archeologists sometimes use information from the descriptive studies of non-Western peoples to interpret events in prehistory.

Processing artifacts in the RAP archeological laboratory

Identifying artifacts in the RAP archeological laboratory

The RAP archeology laboratory at the Museum Resource Center (MRCE), serves as the central repository for the NCR's 1.5 million archeological objects. The RAP archeologists are responsible for the care and preservation of our archeological heritage. Artifacts recovered in the field are brought to the lab where they are cleaned, identified, recorded in a data base, stabilized, and packaged for storage. The primary goal of this work is the long-term care of the objects and their supportive documentation for study and enjoyment of future generations.

Typical ceramics and glassware of the early 19th century

Typical Civil War battlefield artifacts

Prehistoric Native American artifacts from the Potomac River Basin

Bee Ann Explorer Lost, Tossed & Found Playthings of the Past

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Last Updated: July 3, 1997