Nov. 3-9, 2000
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Grounds serve as labs for class research

New class in hands-on pursuit of University history

By Rebecca Arrington

Under a canopy of golden maple leaves, 19 U.Va. students bustled about the grounds of Monroe Hill last week. Sifting through the earth they'd carefully shoveled from six backyard pits, the students searched for artifacts to shed new light on the history of the site, which predates the University and doubles as their classroom this semester.

Monroe Hill artifacts
Stephanie Gross
Stephanie Gross Hand-wrought nails and pottery shards found at the Monroe Hill dig site, some of which predate the University.

Shards of glass, ceramic fragments, nails, bones, post-holes, brick -- these are the gems historical archaeologists hope to find. And that's what students in Benjamin Ford's "Archaeology of Central Grounds" course are turning up. "It's what keeps you digging," said one of his students, who discovered brick paving in a shovel test pit to the side of the house.

"Finding an artifact and establishing its connection with the past is still an exciting process for me," said Ford, a lecturer in the anthropology department, who has participated in numerous research projects over the past 15 years, including recent excavation and analysis of several U.Va. sites. "This preliminary research has suggested that archaeology can significantly contribute to our knowledge of the University," he said.

In designing the new interdisciplinary course, to be taught every fall, Ford and anthropology professor Jeff Hantman, director of U.Va.'s archaeology program, looked for a site that would have high visibility on Grounds and offer several years of excavation. Monroe Hill met the criteria. "There are three significant areas of research that we can pursue at the site," he said. There's the pre-University period when the site was occupied as a working plantation (ca. 1789-1820), the span from 1820 to 1848 when it was occupied by the U.Va. Proctor, and the time from 1848 to 1866 when it was used as a hotel with dormitories for students who received financial assistance from the state.

"To be truly significant, archaeology, and particularly historical archaeology, must make itself relevant to the general public. The material culture and features must [reveal] a site's occupants and the social conditions in which they lived," Ford said.

At Monroe Hill, "for example, the dormitories were built for state students in 1848. We know that these students were physically isolated from the rest of Central Grounds, and that early on, there was a stigma attached to being a state student. If in the future, we find material culture that could be tied to the state students who occupied the dormitories during this period, we could compare and contrast it to the material culture of the students who lived on the Lawn and ranges. Would there be any differences in the types of food they ate, and the plates that they ate off of, etc.?"

This fall, the class is investigating Monroe Hill's pre-University period. Students first dug some 80 1-foot-by-1-foot shovel test pits in Monroe Hill's front- and backyard. The pits "offer windows into the ground," Ford said. The class found that they had to dig six inches below the surface to reach the pre-University deposits, and from there another seven to eight inches to completely explore the strata from this time period, Ford said. In historical archaeology, "We dig by strata, or level, and bag our findings accordingly," he explained.

Concentrations of artifacts were found in several of the test pits, so "we expanded those areas into 5-foot-by-5-foot units to investigate them further," Ford said. Four larger units behind the oldest section of Monroe Hill House and two to the side of it, where the brick paving was found, were established.

"Field techniques, such as excavation, screening, grid layout, mapping, and use of the transit (a measurement tool), are taught in the field as we go along," Ford said. "Students also learn about the material culture of late-18th and 19th centuries as we find the artifacts. Ceramics are one of the more important diagnostic artifacts that we find, because we know a great deal about their place of origin, period of manufacture, and dates of common use." Pieces of dishes found at the Monroe Hill site include: creamware, in common use in the colonies by the 1770s; pearlware, in use in the states by the mid-1780s; and whiteware, in use here since the 18teens, Ford said. "These findings indicate that the cultural strata behind Monroe's residence may date to the late 18th to early 19th century."

In addition to fieldwork, the students will spend time in the library, researching historic maps, photographs, reports, insurance and tax records about the site.

"Archaeology can and should contribute to our knowledge of the early history of the University," said Ford, who noted that U.Va. "should continue to investigate these archaeological resources and utilize their educational potential." He hopes the findings his class turns up will be published and that the artifacts become part of a University exhibit.



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