The gift of dirt
I was planning to write this blog since the news broke of the gift that James Madison’s Montpelier received the $10 million gift from David Rubenstein to help with the refurnishing and interpretation of the mansion as well as reconstruct the South Yard and talk more about the slave community at Montpelier. So, while I am amped that the house is getting some assistance, y’all know I am more excited about the funding going to help the archaeology that is essential in getting the reconstructed South Yard going.
Not even gonna lie, I consider Dr. Terry Brock a history homie and friend and he is a research archaeologist at Montpelier. I have worked with him while he was doing amazing work at Historic St. Mary’s City and I have been excited watching his work at Montpelier. I may not be blogging as much, but I’m still trying to keep up with everything before sleep takes over my life. Anywho–this isn’t about me.
Terry is the homie and has been sharing information about all of the findings and let me talk a bit about why this information is essential to interpreting slavery. I’ve been doing some socializing and people tend to tell me that they learn about history by what’s written. Which, okay, I guess is one way to find out information, but that means you’re relying on written word. That can be problematic. What I love about archaeology and what makes archaeologist so important to a public historian like myself is that–their work tells the story not from the perspective of a person, but from the perspective of the location (my opinion y’all). Their digs have the ability (to me) to paint a picture of the past that doesn’t come in written form. Their work also allows you to live in the moment, on the grounds where life happens and that’s pretty amazing. Without archaeologists, I’m not really able to do my job well. I have to know details about the folks I’m interpreting that may not have been captured in a journal or recorded in a narrative–like what possessions they might have had. You can find those things out through digs. Which is what makes a funded project even more exciting.
I squealed and let out some amazing word choices when I read that there would be this massive gift to help tell the story of the enslaved. Had to read the release a couple of times to understand that the money was being split among projects but then sat back and still squealed because of the possibilities. By reconstructing the space in which enslaved African Americans spent their time, we are getting a glimpse into the every day life of a group that needs their every day life talked about. This is a place where life happened–relationships were built, families existed, and community happened. Now I’m not suggesting that life was always sweet, I’m just saying it happened–there. And for those who suggest we move on from this slavery discussion, life AFTER slavery happened there too and the objects found at archaeological sites help continue the story. Someone’s probably shaking their head and saying I got archaeologists all wrong and that’s not what they do. Welp. I’m not suggesting it’s all they do, but an archaeological study has informed me about the foods enslaved men and women ate–thanks to bones found in a hearth. It’s told me about personal possessions–beads and buttons and such. Most importantly, archaeology has made it clear to me that this history matters. This place matters, and the voices that have been silenced for so long in written history matter.
An investment to tell the story of the enslaved, literally from the ground up, is something that I can totally dig. All puns intended.What’s especially cool about what is happening at Montpelier and sites around the country is that the public is invited to get involved in the process. Particularly at Montpelier, they have the LEARN Archaeology Expedition Program. This allows the public to be active participants in the discoveries being made. I’ve done some digging at Brattonsville before as part of the archaeology to discover Williamson Plantation and it was cool to know that I was a part of history being discovered. Imagine being able to share that feeling with your friends or you family. Imagine being a part of making history come alive! I can’t wait to see the reconstructed quarter knowing that their history will be told from top to bottom because of the artifacts being discovered by these digs.
So on this #GivingTuesday, I want to give you readers, a chance to help out Montpelier or any site that has invested in telling the story of enslaved populations. I want you to see that you have a role in how this history is studied and told and become active–not just from a financial standpoint–but through your time, efforts, or just spreading the word. Dirt not your thing? Know a history person who wants to be involved somewhere?? Well, give them that gift. Give the gift of dirt and all it’s dirty secrets. And while you’re at it, check out this amazing flickr album from the dig at Montpelier and imagine yourself there saying how cool it was and how you wish you could do that allllll the time :).