Potential slave quarters found near Wren Building

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September 2, 2011

3:38 AM

Historians are hoping that the hidden remains of a brick foundation found near the Sir Christopher Wren Building can provide information about the College of William and Mary’s colonial past.

Experts believe slave quarters may have once stood on the site.

“We are always interested in understanding more about the College’s relationship with black people and red people,” said College President Taylor Reveley. “We already know a lot about the College’s relationship with white people. We’ve had black people and red people here since the beginning, so now we are trying to better understand that history, and one way of doing that is through archeological discovery.”

Anthropology Department Faculty Fellow Neil Norman agreed.

“Thomas Jefferson is ever-present here, but we don’t really know about the lives of the people … who, during Jefferson’s time, cooked, cleaned and made academic life possible,” Norman said in a press release. “This site has the potential to allow us to interpret the conditions of their lives and add them to the emerging narrative of the College.”

The unidentified brick structure dating back to the early 18th century was discovered nearly a year and a half ago two feet below the ground of the Wren Courtyard.

This past summer archeologists at the College excavated the site, and their discoveries received national media attention.

“This is a big discovery, and it’s always nice to get attention from the national media,” Reveley said.

Although the exact function of the building is unknown, artifacts such as nails, glass shards and pieces of ceramic led archeologists to believe that the building was used either as a kitchen, slave living quarters, laundry facility or a combination of those three.

“The social role of slaves on campus is basically an untold story at this point. There isn’t a lot of documented history about these people, so that’s why the archeological evidence is so important,” said Joe Jones, Director of the Center of Archeological Research.

Jones said he would like to further investigate the site, as well as comb through old documents and records relating to that period of the College’s history.

In order to continue research on the site, the archeologists need more funding.

“There is never any money for anything, but it will work out. It’s a very important site to explore, and we are very interested in exploring it,” Reveley said.

One of the main problems facing archeologists is the care that must be taken in handling the grounds.

Before any construction takes place on the grounds of the College, an archeological investigation is required to ensure there will be no tampering with historical evidence. After 317 years of continual campus activity, archeologists must be very careful as they uncover remains.

“This site is like a little island of preservation,” Jones said in a press release. “In every direction, if you go more than three, four or five feet out, we know from other projects you get into areas of massive ground disturbance. You can take five steps and it’s a jumble.”

The College hopes to complete an archeological excavation on the site while preserving the foundation. Archeologists have already recorded the precise location of the foundation and filled in the areas that were exposed for excavation so as to better preserve the area.

“The discovery of these foundations is too important to rush the process,” said Louis Kale, director of the College’s Historic Campus, in a press release. “We need some time to put together a partnership of all the necessary scholars to interpret this site. When we do this project, it’s important that we do it thoughtfully and that we do it right.”

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