Archaeology at Slate Hill

The research at Slate Hill has included reconstructing the plantation landscape, as well as conducting archaeological testing and excavations. 
Water screening, Slate Hill PlantationWater screening soil excavated from the circa 1790 trash pit
Deeds, a few early maps, and interviews with former residents provide information on the changing boundaries of the plantation property from its initial acquisition by Nathaniel Venable in 1760 to the present.  All of the buildings that once stood on the plantation were removed by the 1970s, but early photographs and interviews with former plantation residents have been used to determine where and what types of buildings stood around the old Venable home site. 

Every May Term class spends about three weeks conducting archaeological research at Slate Hill Plantation.  Students learn and practice basic archaeological field techniques, including mapping, excavation, identifying and dating artifacts, and recording soil characteristics.  "Shovel tests," or small holes dug with shovels, are being dug across the entire site at 10-meter intervals.  These tests provide systematic information on soil layers and on the occurrence and distribution of buried artifacts, foundations, trash deposits and the like.  The results of shovel testing, combined with informant information and historical documents, have been used to determine where excavations are conducted. 

May Term 2008 students
May Term 2008 students clearing the northeast corner of the kitchen foundation. Note the Venable family cemetery to the rear. Left to right: Michael Nusbaum '09, Douglas Vermilya '11, and Chris McMeekin '09
Since 2007, May Term classes have been excavating the buried foundations of the detached kitchen building located a short distance away from the Slate Hill house.  These excavations have exposed portions of the kitchen foundation and recovered a variety of artifacts related to its use.  The Slate Hill kitchen was separated from the main residence, a common practice on southern plantations.  Kitchens contained open fireplaces and hearths where cooking was done and a separate kitchen building decreased the danger of fire in the main residence.  In addition, the detached kitchen building separated black slaves, who undertook most of the cooking and kitchen work, from the white residents in the main house, reinforcing the social mores of the times.


Early nineteenth century insurance policies note that the Slate Hill kitchen measured 40 feet long and 16 feet wide.  These measurements match exactly the dimensions of the brick foundation discovered in the archaeological field work.  This was larger than most Virginia plantation kitchens and it is suspected that the building also contained store rooms, quarters for slaves who worked in the kitchen and main house, and possibly other facilities, such as a laundry.

creamware plate rims dating to around 1790

In May Term 2007, shovel tests to the east of the main house foundations recovered numerous pieces of eighteenth century ceramics and large quantities of animal bones and heavily corroded nails.  Since then, several one-by-one-meter excavation units have been dug in this area and these have exposed a concentrated deposit of artifacts that dates to around 1790.  Several thousand objects have been recovered, including pieces of plates, cups, saucers, chamber pots and other ceramic items, buttons, pipes and pipe stems, pieces of glass bottles, glass beads, thimbles, straight pins, and very large numbers of nails and animal bones.  Much of the material represents the debris typically associated with kitchen activities, such as food preparation, cooking, and butchering.  There was no organized trash disposal at the time and it was common to simply throw food waste and broken items to the rear or sides of buildings. 

At left are examples of creamware plate rims found in the trash deposit.  These ceramics date to about 1790 and correspond to the "Queens China Dishes" listed in the inventory of Nathaniel Venable's property made in 1806.  The styles of rim decoration shown here are known as Royal Pattern, Shell Edge, Feather Edge and Leaf Swag.  All but the last correspond to styles manufactured by the Leeds Pottery in England in 1783.


Slate Hille excavation fragmentsThe material recovered from this trash deposit provides a glimpse of life at Slate Hill Plantation in the last two decades of the eighteenth century.  This was shortly after Hampden-Sydney College was founded and when College students boarded with the Venable family at Slate Hill.  Objects recovered from this deposit would have been used by family members as well as student boarders.