JMU Students Head Up Archaeological Dig at Woodrow Wilson Library

Aug 12, 2019

JMU senior Katie Brockman holds the lip of a 19th century broken glass bottle the team uncovered during an archaeological dig at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.
Credit Mike Tripp

An archaeological dig is currently underway in the gardens at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton.  It’s a follow-up to another dig at the same place last year.  But the leaders of this summer’s project are a little different from those involved last year – they’re students from James Madison University.  WMRA’s Mike Tripp has the story.

[Scraping sounds]

Hands sift gravel back and forth across the wire shaker screen, allowing dirt to fall away. They search for items of interest, possible artifacts.

[Clanging sounds]

Pulled from the screen, one item is passed to Katie Brockman. The student, from James Madison University, turns it over in her hand ... studies it carefully.

Senior Katie Brockman takes measurements associated with one of the spots being excavated in the gardens behind the Manse during an archaeological dig at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library on July 22, 2019.
Credit Mike Tripp

KATIE BROCKMAN: So this is a bottle lip and a little bit of the neck. I’m trying to determine its age by looking for the seams. So you can tell whether it was handmade or is it molded … like machine made or some combination thereof in order to determine the age. And so, this looks like it’s a 19th century bottle, which is pretty cool. And in the timeframe that we’re looking for in this place.

Working as lead, Brockman is one of a few JMU students assisting with the project.  Along with some volunteers, they are working with Dennis Blanton, an associate professor of anthropology at JMU.

DENNIS BLANTON: The concept behind the student involvement is learning by doing, and we’ve turned the project over to students in many respects so that they can do just that.

In particular, Blanton praises Brockman’s work.

Dennis Blanton, an associate professor of anthropology at JMU, observes from a distance as JMU students work with volunteers in excavating specific spots in the gardens behind the Manse.
Credit Mike Tripp

BLANTON:  She has a long history of doing archeology, but as importantly … She helped us in the archaeological laboratory at JMU process all the artifacts from last summer. And on top of that, I asked her to be a co-author on the final technical report about our findings here, which qualifies her eminently to be in charge of the field crew this summer.

Last summer’s work led the team this year back the backyard of what is called the Manse, the house where President Woodrow Wilson was born in 1856.

BROCKMAN: So, last year what we had done was excavate small what they call shovel tests that went all around the property in order to identify artifact concentrations and see where maybe different kinds of artifacts are over the property.

BLANTON: I was a bit dubious, to be honest, when we started that there would be anything with any integrity. There’s been a lot of gardening and other things that might have disrupted any archeology that had been here. But we were happy to discover that there’s an awful lot still intact.

But why? What is it they hope to learn?  

Students search through the gravel after dirt is sifted away during an archaeological dig at the WWPL.
Credit Mike Tripp

KATIE BROCKMAN: So, it will teach us about the everyday lives of these people, and it can also help in terms of dates. Certain artifacts can help date like the area that you’re digging in. So, we’ll go back to the lab and analyze there for things like that.

Discoveries have included buttons, pottery, small bones, part of an old smoking pipe, locations of former structures like a privy or outhouse, artifacts likely predating the Manse … and these are just a few.  Although these discoveries are important, the experience itself is priceless.

KATIE BROCKMAN: Little challenging sometimes, you know, when you have things happening in five different places, but not bad. I think it’s going well. The other JMU students are great. All the volunteers have been wonderful.

[Sound of scraping]

Lily Fischer, a junior at JMU, sets a bucket to the side as volunteer Daniel Worrell, 14, of Staunton and JMU recent graduate Cameron Baker look for artifacts from among dirt and gravel poured onto the sifter.
Credit Mike Tripp

Lily Fisher uses the trowel methodically, excavating the trench or test unit she kneels within. She’s one of the other JMU students on site.

LILY FISCHER: I really enjoy looking at different material culture found here, especially with the church setting. Like the amount of porcelain found in comparison with maybe other outside sites, and what that means for the social standing of the people who lived here. And then, just to get to experience what stuff looks like coming up from the ground and know what you need to look for is a big help.

DENNIS BLANTON: The three students are all paid to do this. My goal is to come out here and support them. But otherwise, I put them in the situation of making the decisions that need to be made. So they’re not just following instructions, they’re giving instructions.