class in hands-on pursuit of University history
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.
Gross Hand-wrought nails and pottery shards found at the Monroe
Hill dig site, some of which predate the University.
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.
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
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,"
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.
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."
addition to fieldwork, the students will spend time in the library,
researching historic maps, photographs, reports, insurance and
tax records about the site.
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