Washington & Lee University archaeologists unearth major find on Robinson Hall construction site

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Washington & Lee University archaeologists unearth major find on Robinson Hall construction site
A complete penknife was among the artifacts uncovered at the Robinson Hall site.

By: Jeff Hanna

LEXINGTON, VA.- As work began this month on the restoration of Washington and Lee University's Robinson Hall, one of five buildings composing the historic Colonnade, Alison Bell paid an obligatory visit to the work site.

As chair of W&L’s Historic Preservation & Archaeological Conservation Advisory Committee, she routinely visits construction projects on campus as they get underway to determine if there are any preservation issues.

In this instance, Bell, associate professor of archaeology at W&L, doubted there would be much to see around the site of Robinson, which was constructed in 1840 and now serves as home to the Department of Mathematics.

Within minutes of walking onto the lawn behind Robinson and between Washington and Tucker halls, Bell knew she'd been wrong just by virtue of the numerous artifacts that she found on the surface.

"There was a dense scatter of artifacts from the early 1800s — not at all what I had expected," she recalled. "Steven Lyle, W&L archaeology intern, and I put in one 2½-by-2½-foot test unit and found a remarkable assortment of material."

That happened on Wednesday, June 12. After a rainy Thursday kept them away from the find, Bell and her team converged on the site last Friday, June 14, to start digging in earnest. They worked about 10 hours a day for the next three days, uncovering literally thousands of early-19th-century artifacts buried only two inches under the surface.

As it happened, the ground behind Robinson had been virtually undisturbed for more than 200 years, resulting in what Bell calls a "rich, rich site" that will help paint a more complete picture of student life at Washington and Lee in the years immediately after the institution moved from Liberty Hall, west of the current campus, to the ridge nearer Lexington, where the Colonnade stands today.

Bell is fairly confident that what they have uncovered is the construction site of Graham Hall, a combination classroom and dormitory building constructed in 1804 and demolished in 1835. Graham was one of a pair of identical, two-story brick structures; its twin was Union Hall. These were the first buildings the Washington Academy trustees built with funds from George Washington's gift of canal stock. Eventually the Center Building — today's Washington Hall — would be constructed between Graham and Union; it opened in 1824.

"The time frame is perfect," said Bell. "Most of the artifacts are from the early 1800s up until about 1840, although there are some later objects that date to the Civil War. This tracks with the construction of Graham Hall, and then its destruction in 1835."

By the end of that first weekend, Bell and her team, including W&L staff archaeologist Donald Gaylord, had dug 22 2½-by-2½-foot quadrats and had removed bags upon bags of soil to sift through later in a makeshift laboratory in nearby duPont Hall.

Once the team had cleaned the artifacts from each numbered quadrat on the site, they placed the most interesting items on a table, which they marked off with the same grid as the dig site so that the proximity of one artifact to another is clear.

Some of the items that stand out for Bell are a complete pocketknife, bone toothbrushes, slates, nibs for pens, medicine vials, pieces of a Rockingham Pottery pitcher displaying Rebecca at the Well, bone handles, ammunition of varying kinds, and a jaw harp. And the list goes on.

"There are so many things to be excited about regarding this site," Bell said. "Not only do we have the evidence of the construction of Graham Hall with bricks left from that, but then we can see so much of the daily lives of the students by looking at all that we're finding," said Bell, who is herself a graduate of W&L, in 1991. "As we look, for instance, at the type of buttons and buckles, we have found a range of quality, from copper alloy (brass) and delicate mother-of-pearl buttons to bone buttons.

"Some of the most interesting objects are those that show the academic experience,” she continued. “Lots of slate to write lessons on, and what we think are many examples of science labs — pieces of beakers, thermometers, glass stir rods. It's rare to get a glimpse of early college life like this. We were, after all, among the earliest colleges in the country, so we are one of only a few that would even have an opportunity to see a site like this."

Bell surmises that the site laid near a door of Graham Hall. In that era, the normal way that people got rid of all sorts of unwanted material was to throw it out a back door, creating a midden.

"This wasn't a class thing. Everybody did this, and we find collections of artifacts often accumulate around doorways," Bell said. "We might have happened upon a doorway of Graham Hall. That could explain some of the artifacts. Others like buckles and buttons were probably just lost."

While the vast majority of material dates between 1805 and 1840, there are outliers. One of the pieces that Gaylord points to as an unusual find for the era is a tobacco pipe of white ball clay.

"A pipe like this one would have been more common in the mid- to late 18th century," said Gaylord, who joined the W&L staff in January after 12 years as an archaeologist at Monticello. "This could be a pipe that a student had kept for some time. Or it could be something that pre-dates the building of Graham Hall, back to the time when this site was a farm."

On the other end of the spectrum are several pieces that date to the 1850s and beyond. An 1851 penny is one of those representatives of a slightly later period, as are several minie balls from the Civil War era.

"We have one minie ball that was not fired. Our supposition is that it was dropped on the site, perhaps by participants in Hunter's Raid on Lexington in 1864," said Bell. "We know that VMI was destroyed in the raid, but Washington College was vandalized but not burned down. This minie ball and some others like it could have come from that event in 1864."

Gaylord noted that the unusual nature of the finding is largely the result of its having been protected from traffic over the centuries.

"It's unusual, because so much of what we have found is just as it was when it was dropped," he said. "This was a low-traffic area. It hasn't been plowed or dug up except for some utility trenches. So finding things like bone toothbrushes is very atypical."

During the three days of digging, Bell believes that they have uncovered only about one third of the site. She is now working with W&L's Facilities Management Department to protect the remaining portions while work proceeds on Robinson. Even though the bulk of the Robinson work is on the interior, the archaeological site will be used for equipment.

"I've been in touch with archaeologists around the state to determine the best kind of material that we can get to protect what's left to dig," said Bell. "This represents an incredible future opportunity for our students as part of one of our spring digs."

Along with Bell and Gaylord, the team members for the dig have included Karen Lyle, who works closely with the archaeology program in her capacity as an administrative assistant and has been intimately involved in cataloguing materials; Lauren Hatfield, a senior archaeology and history major, from Charleston, W.Va.; Steven Lyle, a VMI student who is an intern with the archaeology program; Chelsea Dudley, a recent Longwood graduate who has been working in the summers with the W&L archaeologists since high school; and Erika Vaughan, a 2012 graduate of W&L now working in Roanoke.

Robinson Hall is the fourth building to undergo a major renovation in the overall, $50 million project to restore the Colonnade, which was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1972.

Reproduced with permission from the Washington and Lee University

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