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VCU Archaeology

CSI: Fredericksburg

by Bernard K. Means, Director

Death lurks behind the scenes at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The deaths of people and the deaths of their material remains–their personal objects that have fallen to the ages.  Somewhere on this landscape is buried George’s infant sister, Mildred, dead at the tender age of one.  Archaeologists have been exploring this landscape of heritage for decades, piecing together the past of young George and his family–as well as those who came before them and those who followed.

George Washington;s Ferry Farm.

2013 VCU excavations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Here, I write of a brutal event dating back to the 1990s that was revealed through archaeology–evidence was found of a violent day that abruptly ended a young life. A death that was quickly and literally covered up.  The perpetrator(s) had no reason to think that traces of their brutal act would ever be revealed to the world.

Flash forward to the hot and steamy summer of 2012.  A dozen Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students were learning the fine art of excavation as part of VCU’s field school at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

2012 VCU field excavations at George Washington's Ferry Farm.

2012 VCU field excavations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

One morning, after carefully removing top soil that had accumulated over the last couple of decades, a dig team encountered a dark circle, roughly a foot in diameter, that was evidence of an earlier excavation.  But, for what purpose was this feature created?

Excavating the mysterious circular stain.

Excavating the mysterious circular stain.

The dig team carefully removed the darker and mottled soil from what was revealed to be a cylindrical pit, and soon encountered a jagged fragment of folded black plastic sheeting.Gingerly, the dig team removed the black plastic, and below this, to their surprise, was a jumbled pile of bones with traces of hair. It was a groundhog’s skeleton.

Groundhog skeleton in situ.

Groundhog skeleton in situ.

Ashley McCuistion holds the recovered groundhog skull.

Ashley McCuistion holds the recovered groundhog skull.

A year later, I returned to George Washington’s Ferry Farm with another crew of VCU students participating in the 2013 field school. I had as my field teaching assistant one of the finders of groundhog’s bones, Ashley McCuistion.  During the field school, I began the work of creating a digital model of the groundhog bones–a task continuing as I speak in the Virtual Curation Laboratory under the direction of Mariana Zechini, our Digital Zooarchaeologist.

Scanning the groundhog skull in the Small Finds Laboratory at George Washington's Ferry Farm.

Scanning the groundhog skull in the Small Finds Laboratory at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Mariana has worked to create a digital model of the groundhog skull, as well as other elements of the groundhog skeleton.  These digital models are being added to our growing digital zooarchaeological collection, which also includes raccoon, crow, deer, and turtle bones.

743_groundhog skull

Digital model of the groundhog skull.

Interestingly enough, it was not until I looked at the printed groundhog skull that I realized the probably cause of the death of our groundhog.  The groundhog’s skull exhibits perimortem damage to one zygomatic arch–likely caused by the blow that felled this beast.

Actual (left) and plastic replica (right) of groundhog skull.

Actual (left) and plastic replica (right) of groundhog skull.

I actually took my first close look at the groundhog skull after I held in my hands the plastic replica created by Allen Huber using our MakerBot Replicator.  At first, I thought the broken zygomatic arch in the replica was actually an issue created during the printing process by the notoriously finicky MakerBot.  But, a comparison to the actual skull revealed that this was not the case.

Thanks to the digital model and the plastic replica, we can further explore how this groundhog died. Who caused his or her death still remains a mystery…….. for now.  We do have our suspicions.

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  1. Pingback: Animated Object of the Day: Os Coxa of a Groundhog | Virtual Curation Museum - January 3, 2014

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