She was bound to a tree, beaten, and worse. Court records call her an “old Baptist colored woman.” Though we don’t know her name or much more about her, archaeologist Lauren McMillan ’08 believes it isn’t too late to learn.
“Not everyone leaves a written record, but everyone leaves trash,” said McMillan, who led a recent dig at Sherwood Forest in Stafford County. “One thing we’re trying to do out here is give a voice to the voiceless. We’re digging up these people’s trash, and we’re going to tell their stories.”
Hunkered down with trowels and dustpans, McMillan and her Field Methods in Archaeology students at the University of Mary Washington look like kids in a sandbox. But every clank of a tool against debris in the dirt is serious business. Each bit of broken glass, each rusty nail and battered button, could shed light on lives that played out in the shadows.
One 5-by-5 square at a time. One careful layer after another. It’s tedious work, and it’s a race against time. Of the thousands of slave quarters that once stood in Virginia, only a handful remain.
“That’s the good news,” said UMW Professor of Historic Preservation Doug Sanford, who studied the structures on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. “The bad news is they’re literally collapsing before our eyes.”
Two – a brick kitchen and laundry, and a wood-frame living quarters – survive at Sherwood, along with a manor house. Owners of the 1200-acre property, the Walton Group, paid to stabilize the manor house and kitchen, helped fund the five-week dig, and plan to incorporate the historic structures into their development plans.
McMillan lugged survey equipment, wheelbarrows, and more to the site, mapping a grid and setting her students to work. The clues they carved from the earth, from pig tusks to pink flooring tile, reflect the lives of everyone who called Sherwood home.
Melding archaeology, anthropology, American studies, and more, UMW’s historic preservation program provides a broad understanding of what objects from the past reveal about the people who used them.
“These students are uniquely skilled,” McMillan said onsite this spring, a pair of pencils tucked into the back of her cap.
Fieldwork just scratches the surface. Back at the lab, the group must wash, label, and record their finds. Every shard, chip, and fragment. Every. Single. One.
For McMillan, who got hooked on archaeology during a school trip to Jamestown, it’s a labor of love. She studied historic preservation at UMW, earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and returned to her alma mater to join the Sherwood dig.
The property, an original land grant from the British Crown in the 1600s, was a prosperous dairy farm in the early 20th century. In between, Mary Ball Washington inherited a portion of the site, before it changed hands to planter Henry Fitzhugh and served briefly as a Civil War hospital.
Historians know the names of all of Fitzhugh’s 11 children but just one of his nearly 100 slaves. Those numbers anger – and inspire – McMillan.
“To understand the racial and social issues we face in our modern world, we must understand the historical context in which they arose,” she said. “Archaeology is a truly democratic pursuit … we can study everyone.”