UncoveRVA: Archeology for Our Past, Present, and Future

May 25, 2017
Students dig into Richmond's history and archeological resources

"When you think of archaeology, what comes to mind? Do you envision Roman baths being excavated on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius? Do you imagine a Mayan city located in a dense jungle on the Yucatan peninsula?"

From the opening lines of the exhibition, the student curators of "UncoverRVA: Archaeology for the Past, Present, and Future" invited viewers to face their preconceived notions of archeology, realize a more comprehensive view of the field, and ultimately, see Richmond differently.

"This was the fundamental goal of our exhibition: to widen the conversation on archaeology and knock down some common misconceptions," said Melvin Sanchez, '17. "In accomplishing this, we hoped to use archaeology as a tool for communities to learn about their history."

Sanchez was one of fourteen students who took Archaeology in the City, a community-based-learning course taught by Dr. Derek Miller, visiting professor of anthropology. Students explored Richmond’s hidden history and presented their learning in an exhibition for UR Downtown’s Wilton Companies Gallery. 

With support from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, the class took several trips to museums and prominent archeological sites and examined uncovered objects at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

"The students got to see first-hand the challenges of curating archaeological materials," Miller said. "Where do we store recovered artifacts? Who is responsible for those artifacts? What is the best use of those artifacts? How can we use these artifacts in the future?"

Included in the exhibition are sherds from the former site of DuVal Pottery, on loan from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, representing a difficult example of loss in Richmond’s archaeological narrative.

"Opened in the early 1800s, Benjamin DuVal Stoneware Manufactory served as Richmond’s first ceramics producer," wrote Madeline Widjaja, '19. "Though no longer operational, the site was well preserved when it was re-identified in 1978, with much of the intact pottery buried beneath the surface. Before a proper excavation could be performed, however, the site was destroyed in 2002 by construction for the Farm Fresh that is currently there today."

Richmond’s archaeological resources have been in the news in more recent years, sparked by debates around a proposal to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, once the second-busiest slave-trading site in the country.

"I wanted this exhibition to contribute to the on-going discussion within Richmond concerning its archaeological resources," Miller said. "It also provided an exciting opportunity for students to think about the connections between how we learn about our past, how that past is presented within a cityscape, and how such commemoration shapes our community."

Each student chose one archaeological site to explore in depth and present to the public. Sites included the Devil’s Half Acre, where enslaved individuals were once bought and sold, and the East Marshall Street Well, where human bones and artifacts from the nineteenth century were discovered in 1994 and a Virginia Commonwealth University project was born to facilitate a process with the community that ensures the remains receive appropriate study, memorialization, and reburial.

"Without a doubt, Dr. Miller's class made me realize the impact that archaeology can have in empowering historically marginalized communities," Sanchez said.

In additional to highlighting significant sites across Richmond, the exhibition answers four critical questions: What is archaeology? What does the law currently cover? What does the current legislation not cover? What are the positive impacts of archaeology? At the close of the exhibition, visitors are invited to think about the role they might play in local historic preservation.

"Instead of archaeology being seen as an impediment to development—indeed it is often used as a tool to stop development—I hope that we can begin to see our archaeological resources as an important asset essential to the development of Richmond," Miller said.

Many students in the class are considering careers in the museum field, but wherever their paths will take them, they completed the academic year with a new appreciation for what’s underground and the importance of our archaeological resources, especially in Richmond, a city steeped in history.

"UncoveRVA: Archaeology for Our Past, Present, and Future" will be on view through August 4, 2017. The Wilton Companies Gallery is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors are welcome. Please call (804) 955-4003 to schedule a tour.