Archaeologists at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg have uncovered the brick foundations of a Colonial-era structure that may have housed slaves who cooked and cleaned for students and faculty.
The remnants sit next to the Wren Building, the core of the historic campus. Scholars believe that they are the traces of an outbuilding — sleeping quarters, perhaps, or a kitchen or a laundry — built in the 18th century for slaves who lived and worked at the college.
The find is “a little bit of a miracle” for William and Mary — the nation’s second-oldest college — and for Williamsburg, once Virginia’s Colonial capital, a historic district that has been nearly picked clean by archaeologists and anthropologists, said Louise Kale, executive director of the school’s Historic Campus.
“One of the things that this reminds us is there is still wonderful information out there that is being given up by the ground,” she said.
William and Mary, founded in 1693, about a half century after Harvard, plays a prominent role in a movement by American colleges to come to terms with slavery. The school owned slaves, as did some of its faculty members and even students, and slave labor erected the core campus buildings.
The quest to revisit such wrongs has also yielded a few inspiring discoveries at William and Mary, such as an 18th-century structure that may be the nation’s oldest surviving schoolhouse for African American children.
A portion of the newest find was partly unearthed a year and a half ago, when workers were involved in an archaeological survey to prepare for utility upgrades.
But they didn’t realize the full scale until this summer, when a different survey — this time for a proposed sidewalk-widening — uncovered another section of brick.
Further digging revealed that the two were part of the same building, a 16-by-20 structure archaeologists consider “fairly massive” for a dwelling of that time.
No one knows for sure how the building was used; records of many campus structures from the Colonial era are “really kind of skimpy,” owing to fires that periodically gutted the Wren Building, said Joe Jones, director of the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research.
Analysis of building materials and artifacts recovered from the site, including fragments of ceramic and glass, suggest that the structure dates to the middle of the 18th century, Jones said.
The college will prepare for a more thorough excavation.
Neil Norman, a William and Mary anthropology professor who studies Africa and the African diaspora, said the site may help scholars better understand the lives of the African Americans who lived in virtual anonymity alongside whites on campus.