Anthropology major digs into rich past during summer experience

It’s not all that common that someone can say that they spent five weeks over the summer in Lynchburg, West Virginia, to search for artifacts at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, but senior Stephanie Hallinan can.

The SUNY Oswego anthropology major who hopes to become an archaeologist enjoyed a field experience where she may have helped unearth Jefferson’s stable.

Stephanie Hallinan on a dig.At her placement, she worked with Jack Gary, Dr. Eric Proebsting and Lori Lee, who had excavated that area for a while, thanks to documentaries and land surveys helping them know where to excavate. Stories said a horse stable was located near the vegetable garden, and this has been the main goal of the instructors’ field seasons for five years.

Hallinan says that when she started, she was working in a unit that was nothing remarkable, “lots of random artifacts from different dates mixed in with one another.” In the year’s previous excavation in units surrounding the one in which she worked, a cobbled surface had been found, extending about 40 feet, as far as the excavators could tell. What was the primary consensus? They had found the floor of the legendary horse stable.

“The instructor, Jack Gary, noticed that there seemed to be a trench cutting through our unit at this point,” Hallinan recalled, “so we went below the cobbled surface. We had to take the time to really break it down so that we could document everything.” Describing the work as “arbitrary,” Hallinan said that it took a very long to complete this task, but after a while, it began to take a shape. Two small pits were at each end of the surface, one facing north and the other south. When the excavators finished digging those out, the middle of the surface began to reveal a circular shape.

“I cannot convey the excitement that was going on when this happened,” she enthused. “On the last day of school, we got the hole excavated very deeply,” about four feet down from the topsoil. The excavation team discovered cobbles at the bottom of the hole, supporting an idea that there had been a large post hole there, and the instructors thought that maybe the cobbles had been used to have a large wooden post sit there to give support.

“Unfortunately,” Hallinan lamented, “we had to wrap up school at that point, but I have been e-mailing them regularly to see what is going on.” She reports that the cobbles have been removed, and the general interpretation seems to be that there was definitely a post there. It is believed that the post was removed, and consequently, dirt fell into the hole, cobbles were not removed, and it was merely closed up. Exactly what they discovered will not be revealed to Hallinan or to anyone right away. Work has to be postponed until next summer, but the hope is that another post hole will be found so that the excavation team can develop a better idea of what the dimensions are of the structure.

In the meantime, Hallian certainly has a story to share with people, and a great experience for her resumé.

(Posted: Sep 16, 2010)

Tags: research news: student opportunities, research, field experience, anthropology