As Tribe students return and begin a new semester, one of the first things they take notice of are the several construction sites scattered throughout the campus. A major project just began at Tucker Hall and a smaller one at Phi Beta Kappa. Even the Swem Library’s MEWS café is closed for renovation. To many of us, these projects are a nuisance and a blight.
But in the basement of Brafferton, the second oldest building on campus, a construction project of a different kind is being undertaken. The building, built in 1723, was once a school for Native Americans, was installed to act out the College’s stated goal “that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God….” According to William and Mary’s main site, the College Statutes reaffirmed the College’s mission to “teach the Indian boys to read, and write, and vulgar Arithmetick…. to teach them thoroughly the Catechism and the Principles of the Christian Religion.”
The project is led Mark Cosgrove, a William and Mary PhD student in Anthropology, and is funded by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It is a short, six week assignment that is referred to as a “compliance archaeological excavation.” Compliance means that the dig is done to remove all possible artifacts from the building that could be damaged during renovation. Compliance digs are required for all buildings in Virginia that are marked as “historical landmarks.”
This year, Brafferton’s basement is being refitted to include a more modern infrastructure. The room was once used as a boiler room and storage.
“We found several remarkable remains, such as three cannonballs,” remarked Jeff Brown, a field tech and one of the four men working on the project. “These are likely the remains from the Civil War, when the building lost most of its interior.” Brown also mentioned that the basement of the building sits on what is referred to as subsoil, a layer of dirt and clay that rests about 1.5 feet below the surface. Most buildings during the 18th century were built with a basement lying on top of the subsoil for extra stability. The excavation team believes that many features and items were pressed into the subsoil over time.
Jeff Brown is a member of the Pamunkey tribe, which has a reservation just one hour northwest of Williamsburg. The Pamunkey were the first Native Americans to send students to be taught at the school in Brafferton. “The leaders of the Pamunkey at the time believed that this kind of education would be beneficial not only for their children, but also for friendlier diplomatic relations with the newly arrived Englishmen.” However, Brown also adds that the students who returned were so accustomed to hot meals and walled rooms, that they could no longer endure the cold and hunger that many of their ancestors and contemporaries could.
The dig has been described by Mark Cosgrove as very successful. “While we haven’t had found anything we didn’t expect to find, we also haven’t been disappointed either. Everything is where it should be, and we are glad that we are able to remove them before any renovation destroys them.”