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W&L Archaeology Students Discover Artifacts of Their Predecessors

Students in four different anthropology and history classes at Washington and Lee University had a chance to experience the thrill of discovery last week when they screened soil taken from the site of the renovation of Robinson Hall, one of the buildings on the University’s historic Colonnade, in a search for early 19th-century artifacts.

Buried in the soil were nails, pieces of glassware, shards of pottery, even a bone toothbrush head, most of which was left likely behind by their predecessors who had occupied Graham Hall, a classroom and dormitory that stood on the site from 1804 to 1835.

This summer when work began on the renovation of Robinson, Alison Bell, associate professor of archaeology, and her colleagues were shocked to find such a wealth of artifacts on the site, many very near the surface. But rather than dig the entire site, Bell worked with W&L Facilities Management to both protect one portion of the area for later digging and to preserve some of the topsoil in bags to provide a hands-on experience that would have particular meaning to W&L students.

Bell said that she and her team didn’t know how rich in material the particular bags the students were examining would be. “You never know, archaeologically, what is going to come up in any particular screen-full of soil,” she said. “But we do know that this part of the site was rich in artifacts.”

“We were talking earlier about how nobody really pays attention to all these little things we’re finding  that can tell you all about a culture or the time period that it’s from,” said first-year student Ciera Wilson, as she dug through the dirt.

“Pieces of glass, for example, can give you a whole different outlook on how people lived, their culture and what they experienced. I personally find that fascinating — looking at the different pieces and thinking that you could be touching something that was in the hands of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson or just normal people.”

Bell leaned over and picked out what looked like a twig that the students had overlooked. “Nails often look like twigs,” she explained. “This one is probably a roofing nail because it has a wide head and a short shank. They would have used it to attach slate to the roof.”

Another student showed Bell a piece that looked like shale covered in dirt. “It’s slate,” replied Bell. “And this is probably writing slate because it’s a lot finer than roofing slate.”

Among the other items the students uncovered was a piece that looked like a rock. “I think this is very lightly fired clay,” said Bell, “and I think it’s more likely to be a piece of some sort of earthenware, like a milk pan. That’s excellent.”

Another find was a piece of whiteware that Bell described as post-1820s or -1830s and that could be part of a shaving compound jar that had been unearthed during the summer. She recalled that Ron Fuchs, curator of the Reeves Collection at W&L, tracked down the store in Philadelphia that sold the jar and also found an etching of the inside of the store where Washington College  students of the era bought their personal care items.

Bell credited Tom Kalasky, director of capital projects, and his team in Facilities Management for safeguarding the dirt so that it could be used as a teaching tool. “Throughout this whole process, Tom did his homework and implemented the best possible means of protecting the site during construction,” said Bell, who chairs the University’s Historic Preservation and Archaeological Conservation Advisory Committee. “This is great stewardship and a good example of how we can conserve the university’s cultural resources without impeding construction or renovation.”

Of all soil preserved from the summer, Bell estimated that they have examined approximately one quarter of the 400 bags to date. Key members of the W&L archaeology staff include W&L archaeologists Don Gaylord, Chelsea Dudley, Steven Lyle and Karen Lyle, as well as Joshua Ayers, a high-school student who volunteered throughout the summer.