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Digging up stories of slavery at a plantation in Virginia

Oct 18, 2017
by Bobbie Stewart Photo by Michelle Mallard, ‘18

Flagler student Kiara Montes spent her summer unearthing the story of an enslaved cook at historic 19th-century home Sandusky Plantation in Lynchburg, Va., as part of an archaeological project she worked on with Assistant Professor Dr. Lori Lee. 

The goal of the project, which Lee originally began in 2013, was to determine the site of the antebellum kitchen and loft residence so it could be reconstructed and tell its story of the lives lived within the space. Montes worked alongside Lee to identify objects and describe them for cataloguing purposes. 

“The experience has been incredibly rewarding,” Montes said. “Working hands-on with a professor who knows so much about the time era and the subject is inspiring.” 

The plantation home was built around 1808 by an owner who was also a neighbor to Thomas Jefferson. In 1864, during the Battle of Lynchburg, Sandusky served as Union headquarters and accommodated future presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. 

Lee and Montes’ work focused on the kitchen area, which, prior to emancipation, included not only the working spaces, but also living spaces of enslaved cooks. According to Lee, kitchens and their associated yard space offer unique opportunities to understand many aspects of life in the past through historical archaeological analysis.   

“Because of 19-century trash disposal methods, sheet middens and disposal middens often exist outside of kitchen doorways and windows,”  she said. “These middens contain artifacts that reveal stories about what people ate, how they adorned themselves and sometimes where and how they stored root crops or engaged in various activities.” 

Lee painted a picture of a possible story that emerges from their findings: “A pierced Spanish coin was probably used by an enslaved African-American for protection or to ensure well-being. Harmonica parts reflect leisure activities. Chopped animal bone fragments indicate a diet based on pork and fowl. Slate pencils suggest literacy. Ceramic fragments indicate that the white planter family could afford fashionable matching tableware sets and porcelain tea ware.” 

Montes was elated with the discoveries — mostly because she possesses a passion for archaeology, but also because she hopes to pursue the field in the future, and gaining hands-on experience is critical. 

“Learning techniques (from Lee) is probably the best part about my independent study since I can use it later on,”   she said. Lee has also enjoyed sharing her expertise and mentoring students in a way that prepares them for their specific career goals.

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