In a surprise twist, a local university's plans to update a building for the future led to a major discovery from its past. Archaeologists at Washington & Lee believe they've stumbled upon thousands of artifacts that are upwards of 200 years old.
When you're doing construction at one of the country's oldest and most historic universities (W&L was founded in 1749), chances are you're going to come across some old and historic items hidden in the ground.
That's where Alison Bell and her team of archaeologists come in. As the chair of the W&L Historic Preservation and Archaeological Conservation Advisory Board, it's her job to review areas impacted by construction for any historically sensitive sites. In keeping with that routine, she recently stopped by Robinson Hall, which is currently going through renovations, to check out the soil after crews removed the sod.
"I thought I'd stop by for ten minutes," said Bell. "I think I went by at 10:30 and had an appointment at 11:00. I thought that would be it."
But after just a little bit of digging, she quickly realized she was going to have to change her plans.
"It's huge," said Bell. "We literally rarely put a trowel in the ground there without hitting something. It's a very rich, dense site in terms of artifacts."
Bell says that specific area has seen very little foot or vehicle traffic throughout the years and has remained relatively undisturbed, which might explain the large find.
"Some of [the artifacts] are whole and some of them are good-sized pieces, so that's very unusual for Washington & Lee and certainly elsewhere," said Bell."
From 1804 to 1835, a classroom and dorm building called Graham Hall sat on the dig site. Bell and her team believe that's where the most of the items they've found are coming from.
They'll use their own knowledge / research, published sources, and colleagues familiar with the time period to figure out what all the artifacts are and date them. But she says part of the fun is that not a whole lot is known about student life during the early 1800's.
"We get little glimpses, often not by students themselves," said Bell. "And often what people observed tended to be out of the ordinary. Very few people write about their daily lives. So this allows us to see the activities that most people didn't think were worth writing about. So that's especially exciting to us to see if we had been here in 1815, what would our daily lives have been like."
Among the items they've found are ceramic mugs and other dishes students may have had in their dorm rooms, pens, slate boards, and other writing instruments, pieces of musical instruments, smoking pipes, and even a bone toothbrush. And they still have dozens of large bags of dirt to sift through.
"We were sort of laughing that if we had nothing else to do we could probably [go through it all] in six weeks," said Bell. "But actually, we don't want to rush it. We would like to have different parts of these sediment bags to work on with students in different classes."
Bell says it's possible they've uncovered only one-third of the site and she looks forward to seeing what other treasures it may hold.
Once they're analyzed, several of the artifacts will be put on display at the university. Others will be used as learning tools in archaeology classes, and the rest will be stored in the university's archives where researchers will have access to them.
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