Archaeology Laboratory Digs Deeper into Oatlands’ Past

Oatlands Historic House and Gardens has taken a big step in its commitment to historic studies with the establishment of the Oatlands Archaeology Laboratory to expand exploration of the early 19th century plantation.

Loudoun archaeologist David Clark, founder of the Loudoun Archaeological Foundation, has been working with students at Oatlands for many years and the new space in the estate’s Carriage House will include storage for the artifacts found on the grounds, work tables and a mobile laboratory for Clark.

The “lab” is the brainchild of Clark and Lori Kimball, director of Programs and Education at Oatlands. The two have been working closely to uncover and document the history of the enslaved community at Oatlands.

Interim Oatlands Executive Director Matt Kraycinovich said the board of directors has been supportive of sustained archeological research at Oatlands. It’s a pattern being seen more and more across the country, he said, allowing cultural organizations to better define “who they are,” he said.

He noted at Montpelier in Orange County—which, like Oatlands is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation—visitors love seeing archeologists in action, talking about their findings, and said he hopes to see that more at Oatlands.

“As a kid, I always wanted to be Indiana Jones,” Kraycinovich said, laughing. “It may seem a bit boring sifting through dirt, but I know there’s lots more underneath the surface that can help back up the story.”

That’s a hope shared by Clark and Kimball, who last fall started thinking about the venture—and unused space upstairs in the Carriage House.

“We came up here, and thought, why couldn’t we clean it out—the idea sort of evolved, we needed it, then we started putting a budget together,” Kimball said.

A half-hidden stone from the Cobblestone Walk, built by the enslaved community at Oatlands Historic House and Gardens.

Clark agreed. “The beauty of it was that I’d been doing the programs for years—bringing my students here.”

It all came together. There were already 40 boxes of artifacts from the property stored in the manor house, and many more in storage at Montpelier.

As the public programming of the past five or six years coalesced on research on the stories from the enslaved communities and other Carter family plantations, archeological finds at Oatlands from its various farm buildings and trash heaps only added to the momentum.

A key aim of current programming is to show the size of the slave labor force that was needed to sustain the wealth of early 19th century plantation owners, such as George Carter, owner and builder of Oatlands. The exploration around the Oatlands Mill—an essential plank in any plantation’s prosperity but now reduced to a few foundation stones —has uncovered many finds, including a cobblestone walk that built and maintained by slave families.

And most of that large enslaved workforce at Oatlands and other Carter plantations “knew the land better than the owners did,” Kimball said.

The work will be featured in a number of upcoming programs at Oatlands.

On Saturday, April 7, there will be a panel discussion on “The Cultural Landscape of Slavery” at 1 p.m. and a walking tour at 2:30 p.m. On April 21, “Heritage Beneath Our feet,” led by Clark, will show how archaeologists read the landscape clues that lead them to potential field work.

The lab is designed to be flexible. It will not be open for public programming, but will be used to further research, store the voluminous Oatlands artifacts under one roof, and to build credibility for the program.

A 7-inch horseshoe found at Oatlands, typical of artifacts found on the property.

Clark hopes it will become “a lightning rod” to open new avenues of research and exploration, such as re-educating the public to the fact that the current avenue from Rt. 15 to the mansion was not the original road to Oatlands—that lies to the east of the house.

Clark’s focus is on looking at the big issues of what was important to the property’s residents in the past and what is important today.

“I’m passionate about bridging that gap.” The lab will help tell the story and connect with other information sources so the larger picture comes into view, he said.

After almost 50 years in his field, “even with all this information, we’re still not linked into the educational system enough,” Clark said. “The goal now is to tell the story from the things we find.”

Both Kimball and Clark believe that the lab and its artifacts will bring important credibility to the archaeological program. Doing STEM programs in schools and public programming in turn could help find sources of grant funding.

And there’s still “so much here that’s unknown, so much more the earth can tell us,” Clark said.

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