Amanda Niebur ’24 didn’t know what she was getting into when she volunteered to participate in an archaeology dig at Historic Sandusky, a house museum owned and operated by the University of Lynchburg.
“The only knowledge I had about archaeology was from the movies,” the environmental science major from Lynchburg said. “I was pretty confident we were not going to find anything, but I was definitely wrong. Overall, this was a great experience and I hope to go back.”
Niebur is one of several students involved in an archaeological study of the kitchen house at Sandusky. Built in 1808, the Federal-style mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places and located about two and a half miles from the University. Sandusky’s detached kitchen house was demolished in the early 1900s.
Lynchburg has partnered with Historic Sandusky since 2006 and has owned it since 2016. The University also has a partnership with local engineering firm Hurt & Proffitt. H&P’s cultural resources department is leading the kitchen house excavation and has an onsite archaeological laboratory at Sandusky.
These ongoing relationships have enabled Lynchburg students like Niebur to get hands-on experience in history, archaeology, and other academic disciplines.
“The University … provides so many opportunities to get involved,” Niebur said. “While I’m always busy between school and work, I try to participate in as much as I can. I have always loved all aspects of science. I chose to participate in the dig because I was looking for something new to try out.”
Past archaeological studies of the kitchen house site, conducted in 2013, 2014, and 2015, unearthed china, beads, bones, and other items. When Niebur was onsite in mid-March, she got lucky as well.
“We found broken pieces of a small blue and white porcelain cup, parts of what we believe to be a window latch, and lots of nails,” she said. “While these are all small items, it was really cool to dig up something that old.”
Jessica Gantzert, H&P’s laboratory director and conservator and the principal investigator on the kitchen house project, said Niebur’s reaction is typical of the students she has worked with at Sandusky. Despite the hard work of archaeology, she said, the students are “so excited to get out in the field and work, and they are really into the history of the site.
“They are always asking about artifacts: what they mean, who used them, and what we’re going to do with them next. They are so inquisitive.”
Knowing more about who used the items found at the site is a huge part of the current project.
For the bulk of its existence, the Hutter family owned Sandusky. Its patriarch, George Christian Hutter, was a Pennsylvania native, former U.S. Army officer, and a slaveholder. While Sandusky is best known for being the Union headquarters during the Civil War Battle of Lynchburg, it also was where dozens of enslaved African Americans lived and worked.
Greg Starbuck, Sandusky’s director for the past two decades, said telling the Civil War story was the focus of his first 10 years at the site. For the next 10 years, work centered on restoring the home. Now, he said, it’s “time to dig deeper and tell other stories,” more specifically those of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the property, including in the kitchen house.
The kitchen, Starbuck said, was the “crossroads between the white and enslaved family.” It acted as a sort of “clubhouse” for the enslaved people, a place where they could talk with each other and get food. “[It was] a very important site.”
One item found in an earlier dig was an 1836 coin silver dime with a hole drilled through it. “It might have been worn by a slave as a necklace or charm,” Starbuck said, adding he expects the dig site to be “artifact-rich.”
This spring, four classes at Lynchburg are working on projects relating to the kitchen house. Two of Dr. Christie Vogler’s classes, Archaeology Lab and Turning Points in World History, are working on the archaeological dig itself. While some students gently remove layers of dirt with shovels or trowels, others use mesh screens to sift the dirt for artifacts.
“We’ve just started recovering artifacts so there will be many more to come,” Gantzert said in mid-March. “So far, we have found mostly modern artifacts, however, we have also found some ceramics and nails that would’ve been used or constructed by the enslaved workforce.
“We’ve found pieces of what’s called whiteware ceramics that were made starting in 1820. These were really fancy at the time and really expensive, so they were used only by plantation owners. But as styles changed or dishes got chipped, they were sometimes given to the enslaved people to use.
“However, this makes it really complicated for our site because it was a kitchen that enslaved people lived in. This means that the ceramics could’ve been owned by the enslaved people themselves or could’ve been dishes from the main house that broke while they were preparing meals.”
The students and professional archaeologists are also looking for physical evidence of the 16-by-32-foot structure. “We are still very early in the excavation process, but we have found two very interesting post holes,” Gantzert said.
“These may or may not be related to the original structure, but their location on the interior of the building footprint and beneath the rubble fill layer leads me to believe that they are quite early and probably connected to the structure. We will be excavating them shortly, and then we will be able to determine their role in the landscape.”
Those on the dig will share what they learn with students in two other classes, Understanding the Historic House Museum as Public History, taught by Starbuck, and Public History, taught by Dr. Mike Santos. Among other things, both classes are researching what life was like for those who lived at Sandusky, including those who lived and worked in the kitchen house.
Public History student Shelbi Jordan ’21 grew up hearing stories about what her enslaved ancestors endured before Emancipation. The importance of telling those stories is one thing that attracted her to the class.
“I think what interested me the most … was being able to look into and start telling the stories of the people that we haven’t been able to hear from before,” Jordan, a sociology major with minors in history and criminology, said. “Being able to bring light to them in a real way and produce something that can help others learn these things as well.
“In the beginning, I took this class because it was the final history class that I needed to complete my minor, but as soon as I logged into the class I was drawn to it. And, as the only person of color in the class, [I] thought it was important to share my viewpoints on the topic.”
One way Santos’s students will tell these stories is by publishing a cookbook. The book — working title, “A Slice of Sandusky: Life and Food on a Small Virginia Plantation” — will include recipes and will cover various topics, including Sandusky’s history, antebellum Virginia life, the Hutter family, enslaved life at Sandusky, and African influences on American cooking.
“I am very, very excited about the cookbook project,” Jordan said. “There are two things that really interest me about it. The first is that I am learning a lot more about how the kitchens on plantations ran, what the enslavers and the enslaved people would’ve eaten at the time, and how the influence of African culture is rooted even deeper in America than I previously thought.
“The second is that I love the idea of having a physical and published work that we did as a class that can teach others the same things that we have been privileged enough to learn.”
Two graphic design students from the University have signed on to create images for the book as part of an internship. “What is really cool about all this is the multidisciplinary cross-class partnering,” Santos said. “Archaeology, history, museum studies, and graphic design folks all working for a real-world public history project.”
Although it’s too soon to tell where their research will lead, Santos’s class also hopes to connect with modern-day descendants of enslaved people who lived and worked at Sandusky.
“I’ll be reaching out to community stakeholders, like the Legacy Museum of African American History and Churches for Urban Ministry, which has important ties to African American churches in town,” Santos said.
“The idea is to begin to create outreach so our students can collect oral histories around the recipes that will tell the broader story of African American culture in the region.”
Shortly before digging commenced in March, Vogler said one of the goals of the project is to “develop a publicly-engaged archaeology and history program at the University of Lynchburg. Mike’s students are reaching out to different community groups that have an interest in the site of Historic Sandusky, including descendant communities.
“Through interviews with those community groups, we hope to formulate research questions about the site that address their interests and concerns. We’re also trying to develop social media content about the local history and archaeology by recording the excavation, cleaning, and curation of any of the artifacts found on the site once the project begins.”
Starbuck is excited to see where all the evidence leads them over the next several months. “In many ways, we’re letting the research and the discoveries we make, archival and archeological, guide us,” he said.
“We have questions and we are searching for answers. It’s a voyage of discovery.”