American Archaeology Draws Chelsea Denault to Colonial Virginia

Chelsea Denault at Fairfield manor. A history major with a political science minor, Denault is a member of the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Public Policy and Service and the daughter of Frank Denault of Shelby Township and Patricia Shwary of Clinton Township and a graduate of Chippewa Valley High School.
Warm sunlight plays across my face and the bright rays coax my eyes open. I’m greeted by a landscape that has become very familiar to me over these three weeks: a soybean field surrounded by acres of tall oak forests and a gaping hole in the earth, covered with a large black tarp.

For nearly a month I worked as an intern for the Fairfield Foundation, a non-profit group focused on archeological research and preservation of the Fairfield Plantation, built in 1694 by the wealthy and influential Burwell family as a means to cement their status in early Virginia society.

A dig site at Fairfield manor
The manor house was destroyed by a fire in 1897, leaving only a few remaining fragments of walls and the foundation, including the original cellar. Today, the 60-acre plot includes excavations on the manor house, extensive formal gardens, slave quarters, and various other outbuildings necessary that supported the thriving plantation.

My first day at Fairfield was spent tediously using a teaspoon to remove dirt from between bricks in "brick field" created when the house burned. After four hours of finding only a handful of thickly rusted nails and a piece of blackened and warped window glass, I was getting rather frustrated. After lunch, I returned to my task with a fresh mind and renewed energy and minutes later, my trowel hit something very un-brick like.

Denault's "sword": a 19th-century plow blade.
I hit it again. Definitely not a brick. A few inches of dirt later, a rounded metal point was exposed, eliciting excited yells from my area of the site. A fellow intern, Molly, said that I had unearthed a sword. Although it was obviously no sword, the name stuck, and it became the goal of my internship to free the “sword” from the layer of bricks that kept it trapped. Three weeks later, I was holding it in my hand: a broken plow blade!

This small piece of metal had provided me with the motivation I needed during days of pouring rain or grueling heat. Sometimes the smallest things are the greatest gifts you could hope for.

I originally decided to take part in the dig to expand my knowledge of an era I knew comparatively little about, as well as to learn new skills that would be useful as a history major. I am now quite expert on using a trowel to prepare an excavated unit for photo, and I know what different layers of debris are called. There were other important and surprising lessons: how to manage a non-profit organization in the midst of one of the worst economies in history (never turn away a volunteer, appreciate every donation whether it’s $5 or $10,000); never take on more projects than you can finish.

I also learned that archaeologists are a close-knit group who can always be relied on to support each other. For instance, our group traveled to Thomas Jefferson’s residence at Poplar Forest, where we were invited to dig with a friend of the Fairfield Foundation, University of Tennessee rprofessor Barbara Heath. She and her crew were excavating at Wingos, an overseer’s cabin and the center of the plantation’s slave community.
The rain made the thick Piedmont clay difficult going, but we made it fun, challenging each other to see who could make it up the dirt mound with a heavy mud-laden wheelbarrow. It’s definitely not the exotic and exhilarating lifestyle of Hollywood’s favorite archeologist, Indiana Jones, but we like to think that we are unearthing something just as interesting as the Lost Ark.

When the time came for us to depart, we had no sooner taken off our gloves when another visisting crew arrived to lend a hand. It was this kind of interdependency between different organizations that makes many of the preservation projects possible.