MIDDLETOWN, Va. (WDVM) –The team of researchers, led by Syracuse PhD candidate Matthew Greer, are working to paint a better picture of what life looked like for enslaved people in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
Over the past five years, archaeologists have been digging up artifacts at the Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Va.
“We know that the slave quarter is placed in a very particular spot in the landscape, where it is made to be visible to the Hites’ office and to the manor house itself,” Greer said, referencing the Hite family who owned over 270 African Americans between 1783 and 1851. “One of our research goals is to see, because the landscape is very voyeuristic and has the threat of punishment built into it for anyone acting in a way the Hites don’t want, how are enslaved people making life for themselves within the space?”
While over 40,000 artifacts–mostly bits of ceramics, animals bones, and even jewelry–have been found in former trash pits in the slave quarters, the archaeologists are setting their sights on a different site this year: the excavation of a house.
“It’s a log cabin, it seems like it was constructed around 1800 and then it seems to have burned down in the late 1840s,” Greer said, pointing to a slightly depressed portion of the field. “One of our research goals it to see what this cabin looked like. Did it look like typical cabins in the Shenandoah Valley? Or did it look like cabins that enslaved people live in east of the Blue Ridge [Mountains]? And from our evidence so far it looks like more of the Shenandoah Valley style cabin.”
He believes the cabin featured masonry work, glass windows, and even a large cellar, which was renovated a few years before the cabin burned down and made into a much smaller root cellar. He says the renovations would have made the cabin more in the style of other homes of enslaved African Americans, rather than the homes of white landowners.
These archaeologists aren’t just learning from the remnants of the past though. They’re teaching from them too.
“The students that we have here are learning the basics of archaeology,” said Dr. David Hixson of Hood College.
Hixson’s students use a number of tools to assist with the project, including traditional field work of digging for artifacts and sifting through buckets of dirt, as well as using virtual reality programs and computer modeling to figure out what the landscape would have been during the 19th century.
“This acts as kind of a buffer zone in between academia and the work place,” said one student, Zac Snider, who graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in Anthropology. “The field school really shows me practical use for things you can’t really teach in a classroom.”
The dig site is open to the public and the researchers invite anyone with interest to stop by the Belle Grove Plantation during the summer months to learn more.