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A Palisades Man Digs Up Neighborhood's Early History

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Doug Dupin stands in front of his artifacts at Palisades Museum of Prehistory.
Jessica Gould
Doug Dupin stands in front of his artifacts at Palisades Museum of Prehistory.

It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and I'm ankle deep in mud, holding on tight to a piece of rope as I scale down the side of a hill just above Canal Road.

The goal is to find a small cave hidden somewhere in the brush. And I have to admit, it's more adventure than I was expecting just a few feet from the tree-lined streets and million-dollar homes in this suburban-looking slice of D.C.

But for Doug Dupin's three sons: Max, 9; Gus, 7; and Finn, 5, it's all pretty routine, just another one of their weekly explorations of their Northwest D.C. neighborhood.

"Kids don't really play out in the woods anymore," Dupin says. "And I think it's sort of important for them to be going into the unknown."

As it turns out, Dupin, a stay-at-home dad with a passion for prehistory, has been digging into the unknown for years. It all started about a decade ago, right in his front yard.

"I started digging because I wanted to build a wine cellar," he says.

About a foot in, he found a few things left behind by the property's previous owner. "He was a barber. I found scissors I think he left here," he adds.

A few more feet down, and Dupin found some turn-of-the-century medicine bottles.

"And then, past the Civil War bullets, I found the pottery," he says.

And so began the Palisades Museum of Prehistory, which Dupin runs out of a small shack he built out of plaster and burlap in a corner of his lawn.

"So what we have here is my first display case," he says. "Down at the bottom are all the artifacts that I got here right below us."

All told, Dupin has about 210 items ranging from pottery shards to spear points he's found on his property, at Palisades Park, and while scavenging around construction sites.

"My archaeological excavations are generally reserved for Sundays cause that's the only time when the construction crews quit around here," he says.

Dupin says the oldest artifacts, which he's shared with experts, come from the Native American communities that thrived along the Potomac River up to 10,000 years ago.

"When the Europeans first showed up here, this was actually the frontier of Powhatan's Confederacy, so those Indians are considered to be Algonquian," he says.

Dupin says it's hard to know much about the people who lived here for centuries before that, although he can guess why they chose to settle where they did.

"During the spring we have these giant fish migrations," he says. "The fish are so easy to catch. You can go out there with your hands and catch them. And that would have been an enormous source of protein for these people. And it's also a beautiful place. The houses that are going up on Potomac Avenue, the Indians liked them for the same reason. They had good views."

Dupin says he built the museum, which is open by appointment, to preserve the area's early history. "It provides perspective that people have been here for thousands and thousands of years, living off the land and in the ecosystem, which we're separated from in a lot of ways nowadays," he says.

So, this summer, he'll be hosting Archaeocamp, for his three sons and a handful of their friends.

"I know they spend a lot of time inside, watching TV and playing video games. And Archaeocamp is more about immersing themselves in the nature and the history," he says.

There will be a few field trips, but he says much of the exploration will take place in the Palisades, so the kids can discover the layers of history buried right underneath their feet: "Your backyard, the potential for exploration is great."

And he says that's true wherever you live--if you can dig it.


[Music: "History Repeating" by The Propellorheads from Decksanddrumsandrockandroll]

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