Welcome back to the school year, everyone! While many folks have been off in exotic climes, I’ve been excavating a mere ten blocks from my apartment in Richmond, at Chimborazo Park. I was lucky enough this summer to be the Project Archaeologist for Groundwork RVA, a non-profit that works with the National Park Service to do a variety of programs connecting students from local public high schools with conservation projects in national parks. This summer and last, Richmond was one of the cities selected for the Urban Archaeology Corps program, a project funded by the National Park Service to increase participation of youth and diverse communities in historical preservation and research. On this project, eight Richmond high school students were selected for an eight week paid summer internship during which they learn archaeological theory and methods, explore Richmond history, do archaeological fieldwork, and give back through several final projects. In addition to myself, the project was run by Groundwork RVA Green Team Manager Kendra Norrell and Groundwork RVA Executive Director Giles Harnsberger. We received a lot of support from the National Park Service throughout as well – Kristen Allen, Andrea Dekoter, and Ethan Bullard especially, from the Richmond National Battlefield Park, and Erik Kreusch, the Northeast Region Cultural Anthropologist/Archaeologist. I definitely learned a lot about NPS operations along the way!
Chimborazo Park was chosen as our excavation location this year because it’s one of two urban National Park Service properties in Richmond (the other being the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site). Chimborazo was established as a Civil War hospital in 1862, and became the largest hospital on either side of the war. From the departure of the Confederate Army until 1870, the city of Richmond was held under martial law. Chimborazo Hospital was one of the locations where ex-Confederate prisoners would decamp to get their ration and transportation tickets before departing to their hometowns. Recently freed men and women of color were required to have work passes and gainful employment, and freedmen found without were sent to Chimborazo in the early days after the war’s end. By 1866, Chimborazo was a freedman’s camp, providing living quarters for some of the many destitute freed men, women, and families of the city. A freedman’s school was established at the site, providing newly-freed children and young adults access to an education. So, the site has many associations with significant events in the city, particularly around the events of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, which has been the focus of many regional and national sesquicentennial anniversaries in recent years.
The program includes two weeks of fieldwork experience, along with classroom instruction, trips to local historic sites, a camping excursion, a community service project, and several weeks where the UAC youth develop a final product to give back to the community and the park. When we started archaeological survey at the site, we didn’t have much of an idea what to expect because the only other archaeological investigations on the site were done in response to some slopes collapsing after a hurricane. So, we started the first week with shovel test pits (STPs) – 50cm x 50cm holes dug down to learn about the site’s stratigraphy and artifacts. From those STPs we found a considerable amount of oyster shell, coal, clinker, brick fragments, and in one, animal bone midden. We selected two of the most promising STPs to have 1m x 1m test units excavated adjacent to them, which gave us a larger window for assessing soil stratigraphy and looking for features. On July 30th (pictured below) we had a public day when folks came out to see the excavation and learn a bit about what we were finding!
Probably the most important find of the summer was the dense deposit of cow and pig remains (we recovered 253 pieces of animal bone and teeth from a single strat in a 50 x 50cm STP). Because it was located under a clay fill layer deposited when the area was turned into a city part in 1876, and the diagnostic artifacts in it were predominantly from the late nineteenth century, this layer likely dates to around or just after the Civil War. Since we know that the refuse disposal was very tightly controlled during the Civil War hospital period, we most likely have a deposit of animal bone relating to the area’s use as a freedman’s camp! This was the exact period many of us were most interested in learning more about, so we’re looking forward to getting the artifacts cataloged and furthering those interpretations. Probably the most significant aspect of our fieldwork this summer is that it demonstrates that some areas of the park have archaeological integrity, despite a lot of skepticism about the damage that might have been caused over 140 years of park landscaping and maintenance.
The Savage Smith map, a drawing made by an orderly or patient at Chimborazo, provides us with a few clues about why such a large deposit of animal bone might have been found right along the edge of a city street. Based on a georeferenced version of this map, it’s possible that the midden was associated with a well along 32nd Street, dug to supply water for the hospital. Once dry or disused, the well may have been used to dump refuse during the site’s use as a freedmen’s camp. If the project continues next year at this location, getting a better sense of the archaeological integrity across the National Park-owned portion of the hospital will likely be a priority, as will returning to the site of this midden so that we can expand our investigation area and look for signs of that well!
The last phase of Urban Archaeology Corps was the construction of a temporary exhibit by the youth working on the project. Given the absence of signage relating to the post-hospital use of the park, the participants developed a focus on understanding the students who learned to read and write at Chimborazo School, following their lives through censuses, marriage licenses, and death records. They also investigated the conditions of the camp, the racial tensions that developed between the camp residents and the surrounding white neighborhood, and the type of education provided by the school. This information was all combined into an exhibit that included an outline of one of the former hospital wards, denoted by interpretive signs that filled in some of these missing stories. On Friday August 19th, this work was unveiled at a presentation designed and planned by the high school participants. It was a great success! An entire Montessori class from down the street showed up (they especially loved the screening of our video documentary and playing trivia bingo at the end). And the audience was a great mix of folks from the neighborhood, National Park Service, parents of the participants, W&M archaeologists (thanks Derek Miller and Michelle Lelievre!) and city residents interested and curious about the archaeology. We even got a visit from Buddy the Bison, the NPS mascot practicing for his debut at the Saturday Flying Squirrels game! Of course I took a shameless selfie. That temporary exhibit is up at the park now, so check it out if you get the chance to visit Richmond this weekend!
To meet the young people at the heart of this summer’s program, check out the documentary video shot by NPS Museum Curator and secret film production expert Ethan Bullard: