Archaeologists discover Civil War well near Brafferton

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November 18, 2011

12:50 AM

At the Center for Archaeological Research building, there is a large table strewn with diagrams carefully sketched onto a large sheet of graph paper, books of historical records marked on certain key pages and maps littered with intricate boundary lines and markings.

William and Mary Center for Archeological Research director Joe Jones explains the most recent find by the group — a well that dates back to the Civil War.

The archaeologists found the well while conducting research on land at the College of William and Mary near the Brafferton kitchen where new utility lines are going to be installed. Their goal was to discover if anything of archaeological significance existed in the area before it was damaged by the construction.

“We don’t have any reason to dig unless somebody’s getting ready to do something like this,” Jones said.

Jones is concerned with professional ethics in archaeology. He believes that nobody should disturb the resources in the ground unless there is a well-defined goal at hand.

“[You] only dig what you have to to answer the immediate question. We’re trying to strike that balance,” Jones said. “The archaeological community is going to say, ‘don’t dig it up unless you have a real good reason for doing it.’”

Jones pulled out one of the maps that has certain areas of campus marked in red. These are areas that could have historical significance and that could be disturbed by construction.

“Facilities Management was able to avoid some of these areas,” Jones said. “[The area where the well was discovered was] too big to avoid.”

And so the WMCAR archaeologists had a reason to excavate the area before the construction began, and discovered the well in the process. Jones believes it dates back to the Civil War because it is lined with reused materials that came from other sources. Remains of a wall were found near the well, and Jones believes that the Civil War troops occupying the College may have destroyed the wall and other structures to get building materials for new projects. A well would have been particularly important because of the enormous demands for water at the time.

“Odds are that there are other wells from that occupation on campus that haven’t been discovered yet,” Jones said.

Even the implications of this discovery are not yet definitively clear to the researchers. A large portion of the work involved in such a find takes place in the lab when archaeologists analyze and catalog artifacts.

“Excavating a well is a very complicated process … [Once removed, artifacts] begin to basically immediately fall apart,” anthropology professor Marley Brown said. “In terms of what I know that’s been found on campus … this might be the most exciting.”

Jones believes that the discovery of the well could lead to critical subsequent discoveries about the College during the Civil War. One of the main reasons for this is that archaeologists will know that anything found in the well came from the same time period.

“It can provide a true time capsule,” Jones said. “You probably really could learn interesting things about the daily routines of these Civil War soldiers.”

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