History grad students dig the dirt

Wednesday June 12 2013


A swarm of gnats swirled around Victoria Lunsford’s head, but she didn’t mind. She was having too much fun unearthing bits of ceramic in a pit outside Historic Sandusky.

In partnership with Lynchburg College, Historic Sandusky held a six-week archaeology field school to excavate, analyze, and interpret the remains of a nineteenth century kitchen at Sandusky plantation. These kitchen remains will provide insight into the food practices and daily lives of both enslaved African Americans and the families who owned Sandusky.

“My two favorite things are digging and working in the lab, processing the artifacts,” said Victoria, who earned master’s degrees in agency counseling and English education at LC in 1986 and was one of five LC history graduate students working at the site.

She and Marshall Dunn made the biggest find, a brick feature — perhaps a path, in the second week of excavation. “It’s by far the coolest thing,” said Victoria, who grew up in the house next door and played at Sandusky as a child.

Check out front-page coverage in The News & Advance, as well as on WSET.

Among the other items they have found are a harmonica plate, a pin case, buttons, and lots of destruction debris from when the kitchen was torn down, sometime after 1937. Some of the items date to the late 1700s and early 1800s. They have also found Civil War relics, including minie balls and a watch fob.

“You’re touching history again for the first time since it was dropped 150 years ago,” said Greg Starbuck, executive director at Historic Sandusky and also an LC graduate student.

Thanks to census data, it’s known that about 20 slaves, mostly women and children, lived at Sandusky, Greg said, adding that this is the fifth archaeological dig at the site.

The project was led by archaeologist Lori Lee who is the Ainsworth Visiting Assistant Professor at Randolph College. She has worked on numerous archaeology projects including Poplar Forest and the Hermitage.

“It’s rare to do projects in the same area, same time period, and with members of the same families,” Lee said. “I can start to make regional comparisons.”

Sandusky was a plantation established by Charles Johnston in 1808. In the antebellum period, the Hutter family owned both Poplar Forest and Sandusky. The Sandusky excavators are finding ceramic types that are similar to those discovered at Poplar Forest, although the style of decoration is different. This means they were made in the same time period and likely purchased by people of similar economic class.

Thanks to 1813 and 1817 insurance maps, the group knows roughly where the kitchen, smokehouse, ice house, and well were located.

The students, who also include Betty Goad Stinson ’95 and Joe Olsen ’12 from LC, and undergraduate Paula Addai from Randolph College, were uniformly excited about their work.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” said Betty, who teaches history at Amherst High School. “What I’m learning here I can incorporate into the classroom.”

Lee said she is thrilled to have enthusiastic students. “It has been great to have this group of graduate students,” Lee said. “They do the readings, are highly motivated, and hard-working.”

The students not only studied Sandusky, they visited other nearby sites, including Poplar Forest, Point of Honor, and Montpelier.

Sandusky is best known as a Civil War site because it briefly was commandeered by General David Hunter as headquarters for Union troops in 1864. Sandusky remained a home for Hutter descendants until 1952. It is now a historic house museum administered by the Historic Sandusky Foundation and Lynchburg College.

The group will complete a report and make a public presentation on its findings.