Archaeology: A Window to the Past

October 23, 2013

Archaeology: A Window to the Past

Shawn E. Eyer

On a cool but sunny day this Fall, I had an opportunity to attend an event on the grounds of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Or rather, in the grounds and just a bit under the grounds, because the event was Archaeology Day at Shuter’s Hill, conducted by Alexandria’s city archaeologists and George Washington University field school students.

Many are unaware of the archaeological work taking place at the Memorial. Since 1995, our grounds have been investigated by the Alexandria Archaeological Commission. The city has its own archaeological team and an archaeology museum near the Potomac. Given the region’s rich history, there is plenty to study. Shuter’s Hill, the location of our Memorial, is no exception. In fact, it’s currently the site of the field and laboratory course for The George Washington University. Students come here to obtain a hands-on introduction to the discipline, including fieldwork, laboratory analysis and public interpretation.

Historians know that, before our Memorial was built in the 1920s, Shuter’s Hill was the site of a plantation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After that, during the Civil War, it was the location of Fort Ellsworth. The area that archaeologists have been examining is defined by the stone foundation of a house that was part of the old plantation. Through careful excavation and research, archaeologists have learned that it was a laundry house.

At Archaeology Day, the city’s archaeologist and members of the GWU team educated members of the public about the work being done on the Memorial grounds. Attending this presentation took me back to my own days as an archaeological field tech, searching for traces of prehistoric habitation on land that was under consideration for the federal highway system. A field archaeologist uses many tools: a map for orientation, a surveyor’s transit to make a three-dimensional plot of the landscape, a compass to establish bearing, and a shovel to . . . well, that one’s obvious. But the handiest of all the tools I used to carry—and certainly the most often used—was an implement well-known to Freemasons: the trowel!

In Freemasonry, the trowel is a symbol of brotherly love. In Solomon’s Temple, no mortar was needed. The perfect ashlars were made to fit together with precision. But to unite rough ashlars together requires a layer of cement. The trowel in Masonry reminds us that brotherly love and fraternal affection can overcome the friction that might otherwise result when rough ashlars are closely arranged. Of course, the trowel has another meaning in Freemasonry owing to its important use in our ceremony of dedicating a cornerstone.

Either way we consider it, in Freemasonry the trowel is a tool that adds to our edifice. It is constructive. In archaeology, the trowel is used very differently. It becomes a combination of shovel and knife. The edges are filed sharp. Using the trowel, the archaeologist carefully removes layers of soil, a fraction of an inch at time. This subtractive process “destroys” the site. But it also reveals the past. It brings light to what had long lain in the darkness.

It strikes me that the way the archaeologists who are researching the history beneath the Memorial’s grounds use the trowel is illustrative of the Masonic principle of bringing light out of darkness, of valuing the past and treasuring its legacy. Just as local archaeologists come to this hill to examine the past, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial inspires us to remember a great man of the past . . . and apply the things that made him great to our lives.

Shawn E. Eyer is the Director of Communications of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.