Recently we returned to New Quarter Park in York County to conduct another two-day public archaeology project on a significant 18th-century site. There are direct connections between this site, a Burwell family property for much of the 18th century, and the family’s ancestral home at Fairfield, where we’ve been digging for the last 14 years. Researching this site is giving us a chance to look at the wider influence of the Burwell family, which controlled thousands of acres across Virginia, as well as the daily lives of African slaves or indentured servants who may have occupied this property. This project is a collaborative effort between the Tidewater Virginia Historical Society (TVHS), the Fairfield Foundation, the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV) (and its Middle Peninsula Chapter), and New Quarter Park. York County acquired the park in 1976 and opened it to the public soon thereafter. New Quarter Park is an amazing setting for more than just archaeology, blending a serene natural setting and recreational activities with significant historical resources. This archaeological effort will allow York County to better interpret the history of this land to the public.
The two-day excavation brought dozens of volunteers to the site to learn about archaeology through hands-on participation. The volunteer crew was instructed in the field by Fairfield Foundation staff and our trained volunteers, many of whom completed the ASV’s Archeological Technician Certification Program. The ability to provide personal archaeological instruction to small groups has been a mainstay of our foundation’s educational mission for more than a dozen years. “There is no better way to learn about how archaeologists uncover evidence of the past, as well as build an appreciation for the value and fragility of these resources, than by participating in a professional excavation,” says Thane Harpole, Co-Director of the Fairfield Foundation.
Thane Harpole explains the process of defining and recording features as well as stratigraphy encountered during excavation.
Building upon our initial work last November, we continued expanding an intensive shovel test survey, excavating small holes every 25 feet on a grid, to better establish site boundaries, the general site chronology and begin to identify distinct concentrations of artifacts. Shovel test surveys are a basic tool for archaeologists to gain an initial understanding of site integrity, complexity and the duration of occupation. So far we have completed about 63 of these tests, covering roughly a 175 by 225 foot area, and are starting to get a sense for size and complexity of the site. In addition to this work, we excavated several 2.5’ square test units, which open larger windows into the history of this site, by yielding larger artifact samples and identifying cultural features that embellish our understanding of the built landscape.
Volunteers helped us uncover possible 18th-century postholes, which may relate to a building or fence line at the site, and also helped identify intact layers that escaped the plow blade, an unusual phenomenon in Tidewater, Virginia. Artifacts in the undisturbed layer, such as a decorated locally-made tobacco pipe bowl, as well as the neck of a square case bottle, hint at a late 17th-century component to a site we initially surmised was occupied solely within the 18th century.
The identity of the site’s occupants is still unclear, but it is always exciting to share both the thrill of discovery, as well as the challenge of answering a plethora of research questions, with archaeological newcomers. After all, the point of archaeology is to answer questions about the past- and we think this is an exciting process that should be shared with the public.
“Aidan and I had a great time yesterday at the New Quarter site – can’t wait to do it again! Thanks to everyone for a wonderful experience!” – Lisa Bishop, first time volunteer at the New Quarter Park public archaeology dig
We are already making plans to return to New Quarter Park again in the fall, as the public response to this project has been exceptional. Much of the recent work was filmed and will contribute towards a documentary about the project and the Fairfield Foundation’s public archaeology mission.
If you want to join us on public projects like the New Quarter dig, send us an email and we will let you know about all of our upcoming opportunities. For those folks who were able to work with us recently, we appreciate your hard work and great attitudes and encourage you to share your thoughts about the experience.