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VCU Archaeology

Meet Virginia: A Day of Archaeology at Fort Germanna

by Bernard K. Means

For the second straight year, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is partnering with the Germanna Foundation to conduct excavations in search of the early 18th century Fort Germanna. Dr.  Eric Larsen, director of the Germanna Foundation’s Germanna Archaeology program, leads this effort along with assistant field director Mark Trickett and five excavation interns: Kara Jonas, Ben Snyder, Ryan Taylor, Kelsey Tuller, and Cameron Walker. Ben, Ryan, and Cameron are all veterans of last year’s VCU field school here. For a five-week period, they are joined by seven VCU students taking the field school: Amanda Benge, Adam Blakemore, Brittany Blanchard, Kristen Egan, Madelyn Knighting, Shane Snow, and Cameron Swilley. The two basic goals of this field school are to understand the human occupation of this landscape over time and, especially, find definitive traces of the early 17th century Fort Germanna.

We’ve just ended our third week. Traces of a trench that might be associated with Fort Germanna are being excavated across three units, and two other units have uncovered a brick and stone foundation that measures 12 feet along one side. This enigmatic structure so far has not yielded definitive clues to its age or function.  It may have been associated with the 18th century house of Alexander Spotswood known as the “Enchanted Castle” or could be part of the 19th century Gordon Farmstead—perhaps made of bricks recycled from the ruins of the Enchanted Castle.  With two weeks left in the field school, we hope to come to more definitive answers to these archaeological mysteries. Whether we find answers or not, Germanna Archaeology has proven a great way for VCU students to immerse themselves in fieldwork, developing valuable skills that will help them in their future pursuits.

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The end of the third week in our efforts to “Find the Fort” also coincided with a reunion of descendants from the German families who settled at Fort Germanna before dispersing across the country and beyond. Germanna Archaeology hosted an open house for these descendants and anyone in the community interested in learning about our investigations.  While my VCU students and the Germanna Archaeology field team continued their archaeological investigations, and answered questions from casual visitors and buses of Germanna descendants, I set up a public archaeology display highlighting the work of the Virtual Curation Laboratory: three tables of 3D printed replicas of 3D scanned artifacts and fossils and a display board featuring illustrations by VCU art student Isabel Griffin.

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So far, we’ve only 3D scanned a few items found during the Germanna Archaeology investigations, including a wrought nail and Staffordshire Slipware rim sherd found last year, and two chipped stone tools found this year. The latter include a contracting stemmed point found by Kristen and a Savannah River stemmed point found by Kara. Multiple copies of the latter in green and yellow were produced to be handed out to curious visitors.

Most of the three tables of 3D printed replicas featured our work with historic artifacts at other sites or museums, including Chippokes Plantation State Park, George Washington’s Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Isle of Wight County Museum, James Madison’s Montpelier, Jamestown Rediscovery, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and the Virginia Museum of Natural History. The artifact replicas were primarily from enslaved contexts or represented the labor of enslaved individuals.

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Many of these replicas were created from artifacts 3D scanned in the six years since the Virtual Curation Laboratory was founded, but quite a few have been 3D scanned since the laboratory began working in January with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities on a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)-funded project related to slavery in Virginia. In fact, one of the artifacts was 3D scanned this week on an NEH-funded trip to Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.


Other items on the public tables were not directly related to archaeology. These included objects dating to World War II—this is part of our work with the Virginia World War I and World War II commission.

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Virginia Embrey, age 5, holds a replica of a mastodon tusk from Yorktown, Virginia. Image used with permission of Wendy Embrey.

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Brittany holds mastodon teeth digitally extracted from a CT scan

The largest items on the tables were associated with mastodons, including a tusk from a mastodon found near Yorktown, Virginia, and two teeth extracted digitally by VCU forensic anthropologist Terrie Simmons-Ehrhardt from the CT scan of a mastodon jaw from Hemet, California. The CT scan was provided by Dr. Alton Dooley, Director of the Western Science Center in Hemet.  Days after the VCU archaeology field school ends, I’ll be travelling to the Western Science Center for the Valley of the Mastodons conference and exhibit.  I have been madly 3D printing replicas of mastodon teeth, bones, and tusks to take with me for this event. And, interns and volunteers in the lab have been diligently painting many of the replicas.

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Lab intern Grace Riggs holds a painted replica of a mastodon tooth from Saltville, Virginia.

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Field school student Madelyn Knighting holds a replica of Fort Germanna, while VCU student volunteer Jensen Wainwright paints the replica mastodon tusk from Yorktown.

I also produced one special 3D printed replica for the day. A plastic pentagon representing Fort Germanna scaled to a LiDAR image of the region created by Mark. This enabled people to move around the replica and speculate as to the location of the fort.

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Mark Trickett discusses where Fort Germanna might be located.

All in all, a successful public outreach effort, as over 200 people attended the Germanna Archaeology open house.



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