Monday, July 18, 2016
Virginia Commonwealth University history major Jesse Adkins is slowly and steadily pushing a ground-penetrating radar device across a field near Fredericksburg, searching for underground anomalies that could help pinpoint the location of a long-lost 18th-century fort built by Alexander Spotswood, the colonial governor of Virginia from 1710 to 1722.
“She’s really looking for Pokémon,” joked Bernard Means, Ph.D., instructor of anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“I don’t know,” replied archaeologist Eric Larsen, Ph.D., who was demonstrating how to use the ground-penetrating radar. “Are Pokémon buried underground?”
Jokes aside, Adkins, along with seven other VCU students and recent graduates, as well one University of Mary Washington student, are enrolled in VCU’s archaeology field school, a five-week dig that aims to provide hands-on archaeology experience along with uncovering a piece of early Virginia history.
Early German colonists in Virginia
The site, located amid a real estate development across from Germanna Community College, was once the location of Fort Germanna, at which Spotswood settled an initial colony of nine German families — 42 men, women and children — who came from the German iron-mining region of Siegen in North Rhine, Westphalia.
“Spotswood persuaded the House of Burgesses to approve the funds to equip the fort, and the Germans were commissioned as rangers,” said Steven Hein, chief operating officer of the Germanna Foundation, which owns the property and is dedicated to preserving the heritage of the early German settlers in Virginia. “He provided [the fort] with two cannon, but we don’t think it ever saw any defensive action because, by that time, it was a few years after the Tuscarora War [fought between British, Dutch, and German settlers and the Tuscarora Native Americans] in North Carolina. We think it was probably part of that line of defense.”
By 1717, the Siegerlanders were coming to the end of their contract, and a second group of German colonists had arrived at the fort. The first group permanently relocated to what is now Fauquier County, while the second colony eventually settled in Madison County, and formed the Hebron Lutheran Church, the oldest continuously operating Lutheran Church in the United States.
The wooden palisaded Fort Germanna was pentagon shaped, and at the center stood a pentagon-shaped block house, which also doubled as a church for the Germans, making it the first Reformed German Protestant church in America.
The Germanna Foundation, which is made up of descendants of the original German colonies in Virginia, is hoping the archaeological dig will find a corner of one of the fort’s 300-foot walls, which could then reveal the footprint of the fort, as well as the approximate location of the church at the center.
“Finding the block house would be exciting, particularly for a lot of the Germanna Foundation supporters and members, because most of them are descendants of the original two groups of Germanna colonists,” Hein said. “In a way, this site is where they became Americans. So they’re excited about trying to find where that actually was.”
In the 1720s, the fort was dismantled and Spotswood built a mansion on the site, which a visitor dubbed “the Enchanted Castle,” given its size and location — essentially in “the middle of nowhere,” Hein said.
“The house was big,” he said. “It was a grand house, which we know because its foundation still exists. It was sort of like the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, which Spotswood had a hand in rebuilding and designing when he was governor.”
Learning by doing
VCU’s archaeology field school is the first to excavate the Fort Germanna/Enchanted Castle site since the early 1990s. Means, director of the program, said it marks an incredible opportunity to help discover Virginia history.
“The VCU students know that whatever they find, they are making a major contribution to understanding the archaeology at Germanna that builds on earlier work, but also forges new directions,” he said. “This is the very first real attempt to understand the 1714 fort that was built at Germanna.”
A primary goal of the field school is to give real-world, hands-on experience to VCU students interested in pursuing careers in archaeology.
“I want the students to basically learn by doing,” Means said. “While VCU students can take a wide range of courses related to archaeology, even a class I teach on archaeological methods, it is the real-world application that really hones in a practical way what they learned in the classroom. VCU students are not simply learning how to do archaeology in a real world, they are working on an actual archaeological site.”
The only way to truly learn field archaeological techniques, he said, is by digging and getting your hands dirty.
“This is the real hands-on education,” he said. “This is where you learn how to use the tools. This is where you learn what it’s like to do archaeology all day long. And it’s critical because it lets you see, ‘Do I really want to be a field archaeologist?’”
Ben Snyder and Marianne Tokarz, both senior anthropology majors, are taking part in the dig. They are focusing on a farm field, which was owned by the Gordon family — the namesake of the town of Gordonsville in Orange County — for many years after the Enchanted Castle burned down in the 1740s. So far, Snyder and Tokarz have discovered a ceramic pipe stem, wrought (hand-forged) nails, charcoal, and black-glazed red earthenware ceramics.
It’s a really physical process of discovering history. There’s an element of discovery.
“It’s been interesting so far,” Snyder said. “It’s a really physical process of discovering history. There’s an element of discovery.”
“That’s what I like about it too,” Tokarz added. “We’re some of the first people to dig in this part of the site, so it’s really cool.”
Adkins, who was learning how to use ground-penetrating radar near the Enchanted Castle foundation, said she was excited to take part in the field school, having previously participated in an archaeological dig in Africa as part of a study abroad program led by Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology.
“[Field school] is awesome,” she said. “This is the second time I’ve gotten the opportunity to dig. It’s a lot of hard work, but you learn a lot and sometimes it’s peaceful and sometimes it hurts your hands. But either way, you learn a lot.”
Zoe Rahsman, an anthropology major who graduated in December and is an intern with Germanna Archaeology, agreed, noting that she has so far found glass, different kinds of ceramic and a few different nails in the Gordon family’s field.
“It’s definitely tough sometimes, but you learn a lot,” she said. “And I learn by doing instead of sitting in the classroom, so it’s helpful for me to be outside doing the work. Also, I like to see the artifacts as they come up out of the ground.”
While this is the first summer that VCU students have taken part in the excavation of Fort Germanna/the Enchanted Castle, Means said the students’ work of discovering the site’s past will continue into the future.
“This partnership with the Germanna Foundation is one that will continue after the last shovel of dirt is removed this summer,” he said. “Students will have an opportunity to help analyze the field results and artifacts recovered this year, as well as present papers on their work at future archaeological conferences as well as their directed student research.”
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