The Fairfield Foundation hosted a very successful public outreach excavation during Mathews County’s annual Market Days festival in September. More than 40 eager kids and adults helped us excavate four 5′ square units in two days. These units helped investigate the site of a former hotel located along Main Street, providing more clues about how this area was used over the past 300 years. Much of what we found was from the 19th and 20th centuries, including many rusty nails, ceramics and glass bottle fragments. However, a few pieces date to the 18th and early 19th centuries, including a couple of tobacco pipe stems, and several types of decorated ceramics, such as creamware and hand-painted pearlware. These materials hint at an earlier occupation, possibly predating the founding of Mathews County in 1790. Several potential postholes suggest possible locations for buildings or fences, but it is too early to confirm these details. We would need to do more excavation to confirm these features and find others that form a matching pattern so we can connect the dots of history. In addition, deposits of modern fill, coupled with mottled silty subsoil, suggest that humans have changed the landscape of this site considerably since the 18th century.
As exciting as the archaeology is, the thing that really keeps us going is giving kids a genuine archaeological experience. When they find their first artifact, or realize that they are allowed to get dirty (their parents did willingly sign them up to do archaeology!), their excitement is contagious. Often it does not matter what it is, or how old it is, but the idea that they just uncovered a piece of history from the ground is a great feeling. Of course it gets hot and sometimes dusty, and some kids are frightened of spiders or don’t want to pick up earthworms out of the ground, but that just makes it interesting. This is the real process of discovery- it can be hard work, but we are rewarded every time with smiling faces and new information. We know archaeology is not for everybody, but everybody should be able to try it out.
One of the best questions we get from kids is: can I keep the artifacts? Of course they are disappointed when we say no, but their curiosity allows us to explain why. Artifacts are little pieces of information, and we use them, along with all the other sources of information we have- documents, photographs, oral history, features- to illustrate the history of a particular place. Every piece of pottery, every fragment of nail, has something to say about that site. But archaeologists usually work slowly, digging small areas at a time, answering simple questions in order to get to the bigger questions, so these artifacts are very useful in the short term, but sometimes even more useful in the long term. We need to keep the collections together so that we can continue to revisit these objects, asking new questions and conducting new analyses. This also makes the artifacts available for study by others, as well as for exhibits in local museums. So the kids don’t get to take a piece of history home with them, but they do get to make history by uncovering buried clues to the past. Not a bad way to spend a few hours outside!
We hope to be able to do a similar project during Market Days next year. It is a great way to both honor local history as well as provide area residents another opportunity to help discover a bit of the past. We extend our sincere thanks to the landowners for allowing this educational experience to happen, and also to our sponsors: the Mathews County Historical Society and the Tidewater Virginia Historical Society. Becky Barnhardt and the Mathews Memorial Library, as well as historian Martha McCartney, are helping research the property’s history and Tom Karow and Forrest Morgan are enthusiastically involved in the planning and implementation of the project. Their support is helping to transform our understanding of the history of this county.