by Bernard K. Means
Today, June 19, 2018 is Juneteenth, which celebrates the day on June 19, 1865, when formerly enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free. It seems appropriate that I write about two sites associated with two Founding Fathers who fought for freedom but whose daily lives depended on enslaved laborers.
On Friday, June 15, 2018, the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) archaeology field school traveled to James Madison’s Montpelier near Orange, Virginia (NOT near Montpelier, Virginia, so if using GPS be careful).
This was followed by a field trip today, Monday, June 18, 2018, to George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Mount Vernon, Virginia. One VCU field school student noted that they had not been on a field trip since high school, and felt a little strange doing this as an undergraduate. However, field trips during field schools are a time-honored tradition, and to me an important aspect of archaeological education. First, seeing different field strategies reinforces the point out in my archaeology courses that there is more than one way to carry out an archaeological research project. Second, the methods chosen depend on what the specific research goals of a particular project are. Third, and most importantly, students get exposed to different ways that the past can be interpreted.
Archaeology is used by both of these cultural heritage locations to shift the narrative and interpretations of these places from an exclusive focus on the elite Founding Fathers to their sometimes anonymous enslaved laborers. At James Madison’s Montpelier we have the exhibit The Mere Distinction of Colour (https://www.montpelier.org/visit/mere-distinction) while George Washington’s Mount Vernon has Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (https://www.mountvernon.org/plan-your-visit/calendar/exhibitions/lives-bound-together-slavery-at-george-washingtons-mount-vernon/) . These two exhibits effectively use multimedia and material culture obtained through archaeology to explore what life was like for the enslaved laborers that made freedom and liberty possible for the elite men that they served, but ironically not for themselves. Neither exhibit shies away from revealing this unpleasant reality. The exhibits show also the power both of archaeology to tell these stories, but also the strength of material culture in drawing the visitor into the past.
These two exhibits also include within them artifacts that I and my VCU students working in the Virtual Curation Laboratory have scanned over the years, some shortly after the lab itself was founded in August 2011. I have made repeated visits to James Madison’s Montpelier and George Washington’s Mount Vernon over the last six or so years for the purposes of 3D scanning, as archaeologists at these two places have welcomed virtual archaeology as a way of sharing their discoveries with past or future visitors, researchers, and, especially, educators seeking away to make the past come alive in their classrooms.
These repeated visits are not simply because the lab has been welcomed, but because Montpelier and Mount Vernon allow the 3D models that I create to be freely accessible and downloadable for non-commercial users. So, that teacher in their classroom can 3D print any of the artifacts we have scanned at these two places, and design object lessons around them.
I should add that I also chose these two locations for field trips so that I could 3-D scan additional artifacts that would contribute to a project I am working on with digitally documenting objects from pre-Emancipation Virginia contexts in anticipation of the 400th anniversary next year of the first enslaved Africans brought to the English colonies. All of these models–most freely downloadable–can be found here: https://sketchfab.com/virtualcurationlab/collections/african-american-history-and-culture