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Archaeology Students Sift Through History at Scotchtown (VIDEO)

Jun 07, 2018


student and professor in trenchRandolph-Macon College Classics Professor Elizabeth Fisher and several of her students were recently invited by Jennifer Hurst-Wender, director of Museum Operations and Education at Preservation Virginia, to participate in archaeological research at Scotchtown. The historic 18th-century house, located in Hanover County, Virginia, is the only original standing home of Patrick Henry, who lived in the house from 1771-1778.

The research was featured on the Preservation Virginia website and on CBS Channel 6.

Real-World Archaeological Experience
In previous years, at the invitation of Historic Hanover Tavern Director David Deal, Fisher and 135 of her students have excavated at the nearby Hanover Courthouse.

"I would like to see a collaboration continue at Scotchtown with more opportunities for students to have real-world archeological experience," says Fisher, the Shelton H. Short III Professor in the Liberal Arts. Students enrolled in her Archeological Methods and Theory class—a required course for archaeology majors—learn to identify, survey, excavate, and conserve artifacts in both the laboratory and field settings.

Fieldwork: From Theory to Practice
Most students who take Fisher's Archaeological Methods and Theory class are archaeology majors or minors, but some take it for natural-science experience and for the thrill of fieldwork. Following a few weeks of preliminary classes in which they learn about the process of archaeology, students are ready to put theory into practice.

"When students come into the field—with bugs and snakes and sleet and heat and everything else—they understand more," explains Fisher. "The applications of the classroom have to be translated into activity. It's hard to imagine doing archaeology without putting a shovel, a spade, a pick, a broom in your hand and doing the actual work."

In and out of the Trenches
Roughly 75 percent of the work that archaeologists do involves processing items that are found.

"We wash, catalog, photograph, and examine the artifacts we find," says Fisher. "That process can take many months, and will involve many students, some of whom are historians, some archaeologists, some art historians. This is part of the fun of doing archaeology: We get to keep the story going long after we come out of the trenches."

Paige Mills '14, who works in R-MC's Campus Safety office, is also a conservator, and works on archaeological and art conservation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She was the field conservation manager for Fisher's class and helped students process their finds and care for them properly. All of the items recovered at Scotchtown will remain on-site, Fisher explains. "We don't take them away; we interpret them," she says.

Putting the Pieces Together
Zoe Kolotos '19 (archaeology major; education, classics and religious studies minor), says that the excavation experience gave her confidence. Kolotos, who served as site supervisor at Scotchtown, learned how to use excavation tools and how to take soil samples. She also polished her leadership skills.

"This experience furthered my interest and passion for archaeology," she says, adding that watching her classmates make discoveries "was very rewarding."

Cali Demy '21 (archaeology major) helped excavate a trench that included a horseshoe, plus some nails, glass, and pottery.

"I love being outside," says Demy. "It's fun to see things fully come to light and know that years and years ago this was on the surface—something lost—and we found it. It's just indescribable. I love it." Asked how she maintains the patience needed to persevere through long days in the sun, she says, "An hour is gone in what feels like five minutes. The knowledge that something is down there keeps you going. Digging in the dirt has really solidified my desire be an archaeologist."

Jonathan Tyler '20 (history and classics major; archaeology minor) knows firsthand that there is no substitute for fieldwork.

"It's a lot easier to learn the methods—what you're supposed to do, and what you're not supposed to do—if you are out there doing it," he says. "What we found during our excavation helped us paint a picture of the area. It is kind of like finding a lot of pieces to a jigsaw puzzle as opposed to finding one big piece."

Elizabeth Fisher
Fisher, who earned her B.A. from the College of William & Mary, her M.A. from Florida State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, joined the Randolph-Macon faculty in 1987. She serves as chair of the Department of Classics and oversees the Archaeology program.

In recognition of her achievements as an art historian, she was appointed twice to the Board of Trustees of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In 2013 she was the recipient of the Samuel Nelson Gray Distinguished Professor Award at R-MC. In 2018 Fisher was named the Shelton H. Short III Professor in the Liberal Arts.