Colby Ferguson, '11, came to Richmond in the fall of 2007 with three things in her back pocket: a love of archaeology, a desire to plunge into undergraduate research and great timing—her first semester at Richmond was also archaeologist and classics professor Elizabeth Baughan’s first semester on campus.
Ferguson, who has long been interested in Latin, was introduced to archaeology as a high school junior. She attended Maggie Walker Governor's School in Richmond and the school, in conjunction with the University of Richmond, offered a special on-campus summer program. While on campus, Ferguson took an archaeology class in which the class visited nearby railroad tracks to dig for artifacts; she was immediately hooked.
A little over a year later Ferguson returned to Richmond, this time as a first-year college student, and wasted no time in signing up for Introduction to Archaeology, led by Baughan. As the new curator of the classical studies department's Stuart L. Wheeler Gallery of the Ancient World, Baughan was recruiting students to assist her in organizing the gallery and classifying its artifacts. Ferguson was one of three students who began an independent study with Baughan that spring.
"Intro to Archaeology was an awesome class, and I was really excited about the opportunity to immediately start researching artifacts right here at Richmond," Ferguson said.
Ferguson remembers the gallery's objects in disarray when the project began and the considerable amount of work that the four researchers had in front of them in those first weeks. The work began with an inventory of all the antiquities. Ferguson delved into the history of the old Richmond College museum, where many of the gallery's objects were once located, hoping to gather background information such as where and when the objects were first purchased.
In the fall of 2008 Ferguson declared a major in Greek and a minor in Latin and returned to the gallery for another semester of research.
"After I declared my major, I also signed up for as many archaeology classes as I could," said Ferguson. "Dr. Baughan already has plans to start a concentration in archaeology, and I'm hoping that the curriculum will be in place before I graduate."
By the time Ferguson began her third semester of research with Baughan, the complicated project was starting to take some shape, and Ferguson was able to concentrate on the origins of particular objects. She began with the Egyptian ushabti, a figurine that was placed in a tomb and intended to act as a substitute for the deceased, should they be called upon to do manual labor in the afterlife.
To find the origins of the Wheeler Gallery's ushabti, Ferguson looked through online catalogs, databases and books with listings of ushabtis, looking for shared characteristics that might help place the artifact. She found that specific features, such as the appearance of the figure's hands or hair, could give clues as to the time period in which the ushabti was made. Further work on the gallery's inventory list had Ferguson digging through records and archives to find answers to difficult questions.
"Putting together this inventory list means getting as much information on the objects as possible. And, with a lot of the artifacts in the gallery, we have little to go on," said Ferguson. "With the ushabti, I was trying to find who donated it, who purchased it, why and from where they purchased it and whether it was even authentic."
Ferguson's next focus will be on the gallery's ostrich egg, another artifact about which little is known.
"Because I've been with the project from the start, I'll definitely continue this independent study into my junior and senior year," Ferguson said.
She will, however, be taking a hiatus next spring; she plans to study abroad in Sicily. Ferguson is especially excited about the archaeology program at the university there, which organizes trips to nearby Tunisia for archaeological digs. If all goes according to plan, it will be Ferguson's second dig—with her first taking place this summer in Turkey with Baughan.
"It will be incredibly exciting to be part of Dr. Baughan's work in Turkey," said Ferguson, who applied for an Arts & Sciences travel grant in order to take the eight-week research trip. "We'll be digging for six or seven weeks at a site that's been relatively untouched, and there's not a lot known about it except for the fact that from about 800 B.C.E. to the first century, it was a city."
As for the more distant future, Ferguson plans to go to graduate school to get her master's degree in classical archaeology.
"The professors in the classics department are amazing—there's a lot of opportunities for one on one time to talk about graduate school, internships and even just shared interest," she said. "Because the department is small, it's a great environment for learning and getting involved in research."