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W&L Archaeology Students to Participate in Monticello Excavation

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Alison Bell on the Monticello excavation project
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Jeffery G. Hanna
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Students and faculty at Washington and Lee University will be teaming with archaeologists from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello this spring on an excavation of the house site of Jefferson’s overseer, Edmund Bacon.

Each spring for the past three decades, W&L has participated in major archaeology projects during the University’s spring term. The archaeological field methods course has conducted digs at the ruins of Liberty Hall, the three-story, late-18th-century building that housed Liberty Hall Academy, the predecessor to W&L, and the Longdale Mining Complex in western Virginia.

According to Alison Bell, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington and Lee, working at the Monticello site will provide the students with exceptional opportunities and challenges.

“This is an exciting collaboration with the department of archaeological research at Monticello,” said Bell. “Our students will be able to work with Monticello staff, including Frasier Neiman, the director of archaeology, Sara Bon-Harper, the archaeological research manager, and Jillian Galle, project manager of the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery. In addition, W&L students will learn state-of-the-art methods of archaeological excavation, recording, analysis and interpretation.”

The spring dig is part of a larger research project with Monticello and its Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). The on-line database features detailed information about archaeological sites occupied by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Chesapeake region, the Carolinas and the Caribbean during the colonial and antebellum periods.

“The project at Edmund Bacon’s house is part of an effort to understand how the non-elite European Americans lived in this era and in these places,” said Bell. “We have quite a lot of information about the elites of the time as well as fairly good documentation of the enslaved African Americans But this work will allow us to make some comparisons between how people like Edmund Bacon and his family lived and how enslaved people of the same period lived.”

Through the research, said Bell, it should be possible to get a greater understanding of the development of race and class in America. The excavation should provide important clues into the construction of the dwellings, the clothing and the eating habits of these non-elite whites.

“This is a broad center of the populace that has not had a great deal of study,” Bell said. “We hope to fill some blanks.”

Bell said that the excavation will have some significant logistical challenges, since the site itself is located in rugged terrain and at the very outskirts of the Monticello property.

Approximately 15 W&L students will participate in the dig this spring. Bell expects several future spring laboratories will also focus on the project.

“We will be entering our findings into DAACS, which makes the information available to anyone on the Internet,” Bell added.