Students work through heat to uncover ancient artifacts

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September 12, 2008

11:30 AM

Reporting also contributed by Kelsey Nawalinski.

Students interested in archeology at the College of William and Mary received a hands-on encounter this summer as they ran an archeological dig during a four-week field class in Colonial Williamsburg.

Through Archeological Field Methods, which was offered this year over both summer sessions, students took part in all aspects of the Ravenscroft Cellar excavation. The site is believed to have been an underground room used by two of The Virginia Gazette’s earliest printers. The dig is a partnership between the College and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

“We did everything,” said Ashton Smith ’10, one of 22 students involved in the excavation. “Along with digging on the site and all the manual labor, we did background research and helped with the [site’s] running.”

Students attended regular lectures on archeological topics, including archeobotany, zooarcheology, artifact identification, interpretation and archeological conservation.

“Before I did this I had no idea what archeology was about. I thought it was just digging,” Smith said. “Now I know more [of] what’s involved: the tools, the technical skills.”

Anthropology professor and field school director Marley Brown said what makes this program different from others is its emphasis on public archeology.

“Students here have to learn how to communicate their findings to the public,” he said. “People are always coming up to the digs.”

The Ravenscroft project is a continuation of digs that took place in 1954 and 1998.

“In 1998, we had an opportunity to take a closer look at a small section of the site,” CW archaeologist Meredith Poole said. “Within a seven by 10 meter area, [CW] archeologists uncovered a large trash pit containing more than 9,000 artifacts.”

In his work this summer, Smith said that he found, among other things, an arrowhead pottery and a rhinestone earring. Artifacts recovered over the course of the excavation will be analyzed this winter in a laboratory.

“As these artifacts are washed, catalogued and analyzed, our sense of how this cellar was used will likely come into better focus,” Poole said. “Archaeology is not a discipline for the impatient.”

For the last three years, students have explored the area’s history by researching and investigating the structure. Currently the original use of the above-ground portion of the site is unknown, but theories include a bake house, outbuilding or store.

Despite 100-degree temperatures and sweltering humidity, the 22 students (among the two sessions) thrived in the program.

“Our William and Mary undergraduates this past summer were among the best we’ve ever had,” Brown said.

“In this group were a number of anthropology and history majors who could have successful careers in historical archaeology if they wanted to pursue this profession.”

The archaeologists are planning to return to the Ravenscroft site in the summer of 2009.

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