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June 2008

Sifting through history

Archaeology students uncover Blandwood's past

A subtle breeze brings relief from the heat. The metallic clank of shovels against dry earth settles into a pleasing rhythm. A mature magnolia shades the diggers; her blossoms scent the heavy morning air.

The Blandwood excavation, funded through a $40,000 grant from the Greensboro Bicentennial Commission, is at full-throttle.

Will Robinson sifts through debris, hoping to find an artifact from the Blandwood estate.

Will Robinson sifts through debris, hoping to find an artifact from the Blandwood estate. Blandwood is the former home of N.C. Governor John Motley Morehead.

“Archaeology doesn't lie,” says Dr. Linda Stine, the UNCG archaeologist who is leading a crew of students in their excavation of the grounds around the former governor's mansion in downtown Greensboro. “It's either there or it isn't.”

Stine, armed with a floppy hat and sunglasses, says she and the students are particularly interested in any outbuildings that once stood on the property, first developed in 1795 as the site of a simple two-story farmhouse. They'd like to know more about the slaves and laborers who worked and lived at Blandwood. What were their everyday lives like in comparison to their employers'? What sort of housing did they live in? What did they eat?

“The earliest map of the property dates to 1873,” says Ashley Poteat, Blandwood's curator. “There's 80 years of the house where we have no idea of what was here.”

The stucco villa at Blandwood was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. The expanded house, completed in 1846, was home to former N.C. Governor John Motley Morehead.

The Moreheads had 37 slaves on the property in 1850, Poteat says. Nineteen of those slaves were children.

Aided by Ground Penetrating Radar, a lawnmower-like device dragged across a site to map out artifacts and features buried at different levels in the earth, students are excavating brick floors, walls, ash heaps and pottery shards dating as far back as the colonial era.

Has Yuri Hall-Gariano, an undergraduate sociology major minoring in anthropology, found a brick floor? Maybe, but he's not jumping to conclusions as he chunks red clay out of the 1 meter by 1 meter pit.

“That's what it's lookin' like,” he says. “But you don't want to get too committed to one idea.”

Chris Bell, an archaeology and anthropology major, isn't worried about getting his hands and knees dirty. He's scraping away dirt with a trowel and studying a piece of metal jutting up from below.

“I always liked history,” he says. “I always wanted to be there and actually see it for myself.”

The recent dry spell isn't making things any easier on Chris, Yuri and their fellow diggers. The dirt is hard-packed, requiring them to wet it down overnight and cover it with plastic to encourage condensation.

Stine is pleased with her student crew, many of whom are greenhorns. “These are very smart kids, and they are really catching on.”

As students examine a dish fragment, she explains a tried and true method for dating artifacts based on how deeply they are buried. It's called the Law of Superposition: Sediment is deposited in layers, with the oldest layer on bottom and the youngest layer on top.

“Archaeology isn't always rocket science,” Stine says, “but it is exacting.”





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