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Diggin' Werowocomoco

Students begin working site of what is believed to be Powhatan's village

Visit the Werowocomoco Research Project website for more information.

Taking into account the heavy haze of one of June’s more humid days, Michael Rodgers’s abundant energy almost feels out of place. Jeans caked with dirt, face flushed red from laboring nearly eight hours in the sweltering heat, his gait carries more pep than you might expect. That is until you inhale the idyllic landscape that provides the backdrop for Rodgers’s work, and feel the subtle breeze off the York River that seems somehow to motivate the boisterous William and Mary sophomore.

Not many classrooms can compete with the scenery Rodgers and 15 other William and Mary students enjoy every day at this archeological field school. The river, the lush greenery, the sprawling corn fields—it’s easy to see why Chief Powhatan would have chosen this site for his village. And not many field schools can compare to the opportunities offered by a place that already has garnered international interest as the site of Werowocomoco, Chief Powhatan’s primary residence. The excavation is young but already fruitful.

At the end of a day's dig, Cyndi Vollbrecht ('05) and Matt Whalen ('06) use the "total station" to measure the amount of dirt sifted and removed from various excavation units. Photo by Tim Jones.

Virginia Horner ('05) examines an arrowhead/projectile point that she uncovered at Werowocomoco. Photo by Tim Jones.
“Every day we find tons of artifacts,” Rodgers says. “It’s more like in every bucketful of dirt we find something. Not a day goes by that I don’t find something that makes me say, ‘Wow! Look at this.’”

Although this is his first archeological excavation, Rodgers is aware of this dig’s uniqueness. The unusual concentration of Native American and Colonial artifacts from the contact period between the two cultures is what interested scientists in this site in the first place.

“I know we have something pretty special here, but if I didn’t find something one day, I’d actually be disappointed,” Rodgers says.

Most of the students participating in the field school, headed by Martin Gallivan, a William and Mary anthropology professor, are partaking in their first excavation. During the initial two weeks, their “discoveries” were usually accompanied by a reaction similar to the one Rodgers described as a daily occurrence.

“One of us would find a nail, or a piece of glass—something from more recent inhabitants of this site—and we would dance around saying, look at what I found, look at this!” says junior Cyndi Vollbrecht. “Now we’re getting used to finding some really neat stuff, but it’s still pretty exciting.”

That’s not to say there aren’t surprises. Uncovering arrowheads, called “projectile points” if you’re in the field, is particularly exhilarating since there are far fewer of them than the more common Native American ceramic finds. Often it’s unearthing soil formations, such as a mysterious trench feature uncovered recently, or post stains, that provide the most excitement. Everything is important, even a rusty 19th-century nail, because each find reveals another piece of history.

Excavation isn’t easy work, evident in the dirt-stained clothes, foreheads glistening with sweat and water bottles attached to every students’ hands. Meticulous scraping with a trowel, necessary to prevent intrusive digging, is extremely slow.

“I can’t get over just how much dirt is actually in these holes!” Vollbrecht says. “You look at these square units, and they don’t look that big, but you wouldn’t believe how much dirt comes out of them.” And that dirt has to be sifted. Every piece of it, thoroughly sifted and documented—a process that for one average sized unit, about five feet by five feet, takes anywhere from one half to a full day. If the work is as tedious and tiring as it sounds, not a single student is showing it. Smiles adorn every face, and good-humored banter flows freely thanks in part to Rodgers’s habit of nicknaming the equipment used in digging.

“This here is the Princess of Power Stick,” he says as he positions one half of the surveying equipment setup. Rodgers and Vollbrecht, who controls the other half, are taking elevation readings to see how far down they’ve dug today. “I called it that because it has this shiny prism on the top of it,” Rodgers explains. “That thing over there, the small sifter, we call Little Buddy. Seriously, how can you get mad at something named ‘Little Buddy?’ The bigger one over there is Captain America.”

While joking, Rodgers works constantly. Every other student works too, packing up one of the four sites they’ve been digging and draping an enormous black tarp over the dig area. With everyone pitching in, either holding down edges and corners or grabbing objects heavy enough to hold down the tarp (Little Buddy included), clean-up moves rapidly.

A gentle river breeze sends waves through the tarp, reminding the workers why they must move quickly—there’s only a little more than an hour of prime swimming time before today’s informal class lecture. Hurriedly, students head back to camp. The ladies head to the small air-conditioned house while guys disappear into their tents, most emerging in swimwear only minutes later. Some students choose to hang out at camp and toss a Frisbee, while others make a beeline for the river.

“This is a pretty unique field school,” says David Brown (’96), a Ph.D. candidate working as a teaching assistant. He quickly reminds the departing students that the lecture is only an hour away. “Dr. Gallivan and the land owners, Bob and Lynn Ripley, have really gone out of their way to make sure the students have everything they need. On top of that, there’s plenty here to entertain us when we’re not working.”

Lynn Ripley who spends her days digging alongside the students and continually extending her hospitality, is happy to have such a great group of students and to contribute to their enjoyment of this project.

“It’s wonderful to see them working so well with one another and having so much fun together. There’s not one student who doesn’t spend time with the others,” she says. Ripley, who is auditing one of Gallivan’s archeology courses in the fall, added that she’s learning as much as the students, and probably having just as much fun with the field school.

It’s debatable, considering that at their disposal students have a river, jet skis, a beautiful dock perfect for fishing, showers, even Yoga, and the picturesque landscape conducive to volleyball, wiffleball and Frisbee tossing, all of which resembles more of a summer camp set-up than a field school site. Students take full advantage of the resources, particularly the fishing. Collectively, they’ve reeled in enough croaker for an end-of-field-school fish fry.

Although the field school does have its resort qualities, students still find themselves “roughing it” in some cases. The heat alone can be a bit of a burden, not to mention the evening bugs and the construction site style restroom. But it’s not enough to prompt a single complaint.

“Oh, I’m simply loving it out here,” says Rogers on his way to the river. “Even the bugs aren’t that bad, but that may be because we all wear enough bug spray to kill any insects that come within three feet of us!”

For as hard as they play, they work twice as hard and learn twice as much, even though the most casually dressed student on William and Mary’s campus would appear to be attending a black-tie affair compared to the field school’s students. Sauntering sporadically into the lab for their informal lecture, many students are still wet from their afternoon river swim. Most are still dressed in their bathing suits and wrapped in towels. But that doesn’t inhibit the classroom setting at all, and the discussion itself would rival the intellectual sophistication of any other class.

“For our next quiz, I want you all to be able to identify some artifacts from our actual excavation sites and be able to make sense of them in terms of chronology and function,” Gallivan tells the class. Using items uncovered at the Werowocomoco site to provide examples far more illustrative than even the highest quality photograph, Gallivan explains the diagnostic characteristics of Native American ceramics. He acknowledges that, yes, it can be difficult to identify the fabric impressions on the artifacts because many are crumbled and small, but with a carefully trained eye, students should be able to differentiate between Townsend fabric impressed and Roanoke simple stamp ceramics, both of which are shell tempered.

“The simple stamping will have very shallow parallel grooves as the surface treatment, without the twisting that you see in the cord marked,” Gallivan says, as he wipes an artifact with the tail of his shirt. “Cord marked, of course, with the indentations of individual cords wrapped around paddles that are being pressed into the leather hard clay, and if you look really carefully, and you have a clean shirt, you’ll see an S twist or a Z twist, which you won’t see in the simple stamped ceramic.”

In the classroom, there is the same amount of energy and attentiveness that flows in the field. Whatever it is, be it the anticipation of another pre-dusk swim, the tug of dinner at the end of the line, the sheer joy of learning something new, or the chance to gain understanding of another culture, something keeps every students’ eyes wide and smiles big.

Perhaps it’s the same thing that’s been there for centuries.

© 2014 The College of William & Mary