New Historical Archaeological Collective Aims to Help Local Community

Members of the Historical Archaeology Collective work on mapping McDowell Cemetery.

Members of the Historical Archaeology Collective work on mapping McDowell Cemetery.

Archaeology at Washington and Lee University has provided services to local individuals and organizations on an ad hoc basis for many years, but a new initiative aims to both formalize and expand that role.

The Historical Archaeology Collective (HAC) was formed this summer and consists thus far of about 30 volunteers — faculty, students and staff — from both W&L and Virginia Military Institute, as well as community members who are interested in helping people with their questions about historic sites.

Those questions can vary from someone wanting to know about artifacts they found in their garden and advice on metal detecting, to wanting to know if the terracing on their land is prehistoric.

Crossing interdisciplinary boundaries, HAC includes experts from geology, engineering, history and chemistry.

For example, the collective's first long term project, which began in June, is to map McDowell cemetery on Route 11 near Fairfield. The group is collaborating with the Historic Lexington Foundation and working with W&L geologists and VMI engineers to come up with a strategy to map stones that are not visible on the surface, possibly through the use of ground-penetrating radar. HAC will return to the cemetery October 19 and additional volunteers are encouraged to participate.

According to Alison Bell, associate professor of archaeology at W&L, scores of local citizens were buried in McDowell cemetery but few of the stones remain above the vegetation. "I think the briars and periwinkle really swallowed up a lot of these stones," she said, "so now soil has accumulated on top and they're not visible. We're clearing off what vegetation we can and then we'll use remote sensing so that we don’t actually have to dig in the cemetery."

A similar mapping project is planned for the cemetery of freed slaves in Buffalo Forge. In the 19th century, William Weaver owned a large iron plantation near Glasgow and many former slaves continued working in the area  after emancipation. They had their own church and a cemetery that is now completely overgrown with very few stones visible.

A further project is helping the Civil War Trails program develop signage for the Australia Furnace in Allegheny County, which produced iron for the Confederate cause in the 1860s. "It's a great example of what the collective is doing to try to use our skills in archaeology and history to help the community with projects of interest to them," said Bell.

HAC is interested in talking to people about possible projects, but Bell stressed that the collective can only undertake about 10 projects a year. "We can't do everything, given our resources and the time available, but we can teach people a little about archaeology and at the same time help property owners," she said.

Metal detecting is one of the most requested areas of help from the community. Although it is very popular in the Shenandoah Valley because of its rich Civil War history, the practice has the potential to impact archaeological sites negatively.

Bell suggested that if someone is considering metal detecting that they contact W&L Archaeology.

"Particularly with the popularity of television shows glamorizing metal detecting and digging into archaeological sites, we are eager to communicate the importance of artifacts' contexts and recording artifacts' locations," she said.

"We'll be glad to talk about ways in which we can help that allow people to find something of interest but also safeguard the site and document where an artifact was found. In association with other objects or evidence of human activity, an artifact can provide a great deal of information about the people who used it.

"We have great mapping capabilities at W&L, so we could definitely help people record what they find. Archaeological sites are a non-renewable cultural resource and treating them with care protects their stories about the past that are of importance to many people, including future generations," she added.

To better educate the community about the methods and ethics of metal detecting, W&L Archaeology will conduct a metal detecting workshop on Nov. 9 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the vicinity of Alone Mill on the upper Maury River.

Bell pointed out that professional archaeologists have an ethical obligation to enlist public support for the stewardship of the archaeological record, as well as to explain and promote the use of archaeological methods and techniques.

In addition, she cited the obligation that W&L President Ken Ruscio has acknowledged for W&L faculty, students and staff to extend their expertise and energies into the community in ways that benefit others. “We think that the Historical Archaeological Collective is central to what we are doing at W&L," she said.

Anyone interested in participating in the McDowell Cemetery project or the metal detecting workshop should contact Alison Bell at bella@wlu.edu or Don Gaylord, staff archaeologist at W&L, at gaylordd@wlu.edu.

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