Historical Archaeology at the Stone House: Week One

This weekend the historical archaeology class I am enrolled began a three week dig in Stephens City. We are excavating portions of the historic Stone House, owned by the Newtown History Center. As part of an ongoing project to open the Stone House to the public, the history center is conducting archaeology and architectural research. My professor, Dr. Blanton was able to work out an agreement with the center to conduct historical archaeology. We as a class have two objectives. First is to try to locate the original stone foundation to an addition placed on the Stone House circa 1800. Secondly, the class wants attempt to understand the socio-economic makeup of the household through artifacts and material culture. Before we began digging the class has been actively analyzing a probate inventory of the Stone House. As someone with little archaeological experience, I as excited to take part in this process.

We began early Saturday morning. My partner and I were assigned a 1×1 meter unit that abutted the outside corner of the original Stone House. Before we started to dig, we had to fill out necessary paperwork. We drew a sketch of what we saw, including large and small stones in the ground. This was a measured drawing as we plotted the stones precisely inside the 1×1 meter unit. After this was drawn, we took elevation measurements at each corner and the center of the unit. We hypothesized at this point the large rocks we saw could be a portion of the original foundation to the addition.

What our 1x1 meter unit looked like when we arrived. Notice the large stones.

What our 1×1 meter unit looked like when we arrived. Notice the large stones.

The first task was for me to excavate all of the loose dirt in order to reach a lower soil strata. In doing so, I had to make notice not to undercut the large rocks. Our unit was extremely disturbed by groundhog holes. Therefore most of the top layer of soil was loose. I put the soil inside a five gallon bucket and handed this to my partner outside. She in turn screened the soil and bagged any artifacts inside the soil. We found numerous red earthenware sherds, glass, nails, and even a button with the thread still in tact! We continued this process for most of the day. We switched shift half way through the day and I headed out to do the screening. All the artifacts were placed in labeled bags to be taken back to the archaeology lab at JMU. My partner Megan reached a lower soil strata of hard clay. When this was reached we took scaled photographs. We finished the day by taking final elevations at each corner and center of the unit.

Screening

Class screening and organizing artifacts

Beginning to excavate our unit

Beginning to excavate our unit

Sunday morning was cold and snowy. To our benefit, our unit was semi-enclosed. However when it began to rain and sleet we had to call the day finished earlier than planned. But before the day was over we reached another strata. This srata was mostly clay and mixed with charcoal. The interesting part was that the other two groups in the class found the same clay esque strata sprinkled with charcoal. It was in this strata one of the groups found a whole horseshoe and large sherds of ceramics. Dr. Blanton suspects that this strata is representative of a trash pit as it is located behind the house. More evacuation and artifact analysis will help answer this question.

Our finished 1x1 meter unit. Notice the revealed stones and how deep the unit goes.

Our finished 1×1 meter unit. Notice the revealed stones.

Before the day was called because of the weather, Megan and I finished our excavating our unit. We took elevations at each corner and center, and took a final scaled photograph. We concluded that the stack of rocks we unearthed was a foundation pier. To confirm our suspicions we began to work on setting up another unit on the opposite end of the Stone House. We suspect that once we begin to excavate this area, we will uncover evidence of a similar stone foundation pier.

Preparing the paperwork for our new unit.

Preparing the paperwork for our new unit.

Whole class outside the Stone House.

Whole class outside the Stone House.

We will begin work on the new unit next weekend.

Photos by myself and Newtown History Center. 

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Beyond the Big House: The Belle Grove Plantation Complex

I am excited to say that this summer I will presenting an original History at Sunset program at the park. The program is going to examine the Belle Grove Plantation complex as a whole. I want to look at the relationship of outbuildings to each other, the use of landscapes, agricultural endeavors, use of outside spaces, slavery at the site, and try to put the “big house” in greater historical context. It will be on Friday, July 24th at 7:00 p.m.

Modern day picture of Belle Grove

Modern day picture of Belle Grove

I was inspired by John Michael Vlach’s groundbreaking work, “Back of the Big House.” Published in 1993 Vlach examines the architecture of plantation landscapes by utilizing NPS HABS and HAER photographs taken in the 1930s. Even with its shortcomings, it has inspired scholars and public historians alike to move outside of the “big house” and examine plantations more holistically.

This is what I want to do during my program. I have started my research by attempting to gather as much material as possible. There are a plethora of land use studies, cultural resource reports, ethnographic reports, and historic resource studies completed within the last 15 years. Many of these studies were done by historical archaeologists, historic preservationists, landscape architects and other academic historians. These studies are worth their weight in gold.

Besides resource studies I have also been attempting to gather as much primary source documentation as possible. As of now I have an anthology of letters written by the plantation “master” Isaac Hite Jr. and his family. These letters provide an insight into both the personal and business matters of his life. The compiler also provides a crude sketch of slave genealogy as well. The ability to key word search certain newspaper articles online has also been a great help as well. I have found advertisements in local and regional papers by Hite during the first few decades of the 19th century.

One of the most intriguing and mysterious ads was placed in late summer 1824 in Washington D.C. and Baltimore papers. In this ad he informed readers that he will be selling 60 slaves that fall, along with other farming equipment. This is interesting because at the peakof the plantation Hite owned 103 slaves in the early 1800s. Records do not show him selling a majority of his slaves in 1824. One hypothesis is that he was acting as an executor of another man’s will and is selling his property. The goods listed are all farming tools, not domestic goods as you would expect in a estate sale. My personal thought is that Hite bought up numerous slaves in the lower Shenandoah Valley. There was massive soil exhaustion in Virginia and the nature of slavery shifting towards cotton growing in the deep south. Hite may have used his position as a businessman and wealthy landowner to buy slaves from struggling farmers. He then in turn sold them to slave traders willing to take them to the deep south towards Louisiana and other cotton states. There is no evidence to back this claim as of yet.

Elusive ad found describing the sale of 60 slaves at Belle Grove Plantation. Aug 31 1824 Daily National Intelligencer, Washington DC.

Elusive ad found describing the sale of 60 slaves at Belle Grove Plantation. Aug 31 1824 Daily National Intelligencer, Washington DC.

In an attempt to gather more primary sources I traveled to the local archive, the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives at he Handley Library in Winchester Virginia. This archive houses the majority of Belle Grove’s archival collection. There I was able to get copies of probates, wills, insurance policies, land holdings, and indentured servant records. I was able to put these on my flash drive and take them back to the office for further examination.

Examining a copy of land holding records from 1814. I plan on transcribing this into an Excel file.

Examining a copy of land holding records from 1814. I plan on transcribing this into an Excel file.

As I begin this research I am excited for the numerous opportunities it presents me. My research skills will be honed as I utilize archival material. I will also be able to gain a better understanding of how to use resource studies and other secondary source material. This also provides an interpretive challenge of how to best present this research in a formal program.

I plan on continuing to talk out ideas and share new research on this project.

Stay tuned.

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Great Online Resource for Civil War Buffs

Gettysburg National Military Park is the most visited Civil War park in America. The vast amount of interpretation done on a daily basis can outnumber that of smaller parks. During the winter months the staff at Gettysburg hosts a “Winter Lecture Series.” These lectures, hosted at the park cover all facets of the Civil War from battles, leaders, reconciliation, and memory.

During the sesquicentennial cycle these lectures have coincided with historical events taking place 150 years ago. Starting this year the park began to videotape these lectures and post them online.

Gettysburg’s YouTube Channel has over 100 videos. These include hour long Ranger programs and special events. For folks who cannot travel to Pennsylvania and experience the historical landscape in person, these videos are a great alternative. Specifically during this harsh winter.

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When Worlds Collide: A Public Historian at the CWI Conference

kylerothemich:

Great insight from my fellow co-worker and close friend.

Originally posted on The Gettysburg Compiler:

by Shannon Moeck

NOTE: Applications to participate in the 2015 Public Historian Scholarship Program are due March 15.

As a Park Ranger for Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP, a major component of my job is to interpret the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  Over the years of employment and through my personal research, I have developed a quality overview understanding of the fall 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  The next phase in my career development is to broaden my understanding and delve deeper into the experience of the war, both inside and outside the Valley.  In 2013, I attended the Future of Civil War History conference hosted by Gettysburg College.  That was the first conference I ever attended and it was one of the best professional experiences I have had to date.  My personal takeaway was enormous.  The opportunity to hear speakers such as Peter Carmichael, David Blight, and Troy Harman was…

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New to the library

Recently a new publication entitled, Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites hit the shelves. This anthology of essays written by public historians examines how to interpret the complicated history of slavery at historic sites. Eight chapters cover many aspects of the topic from: institutional support in interpreting slavery to the role race perceptions play during site interpretation.

I have not read it cover to cover yet. But from what I have read the authors speak to many of the nuances and challenges slavery interpretation brings to historic sites. Edited by Kristin Gallas from the Tracing Center, this book brings a practical approach interpreting slavery. Compared to previous works such as Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory edited by James Oliver Horton, Lois E. Horton this work moves away from a theoretical approach to a practical discussion of slave interpretation.

Anyone working at a historic site dealing with slavery should pick this up and have it at their disposal.

Kristen L. Galas, James DeWolf Perry, eds. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2015. 127 pp. $29.95.

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Member of the Historic Preservation Committee

I am proud to announce that I am now serving on the Town of Stephens City Historic Preservation Committee. Meeting once a month, the committee discusses the management of the historic district of Stephens City, citizens requests for construction, and oversees the overall appearance of the district.

I am excited to see how this process works. I hope I can bring my background in public history, interpretation, and training from school and apply it in a real world setting.

The first meeting I will be attending is on Tuesday, January 20th at 7:00 pm.

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2015 Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Conference

In March 2015 I will present my original research synthesized in my B.A. Honor’s Thesis, Evaluating Contested Ground: Civil War Interpretation in the Shenandoah Valley at the annual CAA Undergraduate Research Conference.

The conference will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, on March 27-29, 2015.  I have been selected to represent JMU and give a poster presentation on my findings. Here is my abstract:

This research focuses on how three distinct Civil War sites in the Shenandoah Valley interpret the American Civil War. The Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market Virginia, the visitor center housed by the Kernstown Battlefield Association in Kernstown Virginia, and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park information center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Each of these three organizations is administered by a different governing body ranging from the National Park Service to the State of Virginia, and lies in the geographical and cultural region of the Shenandoah Valley. Research is based off; interviews conducted with interpretative managers at each site, visual documentation of the physical exhibit space, and critical analysis of written rhetoric. Examination and evaluation reveal; the organizational structure of each site is reflected in their exhibits, interpretive endeavors fail to reach a suitable level of inclusiveness, and the need to reassess future interpretation.

I am looking forward to the opportunity to reach a wider audience, and share some of my findings.

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