UncoveRVA: Archaeology for Our Past, Present, and Future

This spring, students in my “Archaeology in the City” class curated an exhibition UncoveRVA: Archaeology for Our Past, Present, and Future at the University of Richmond Downtown (626 E. Broad Street). The exhibition sheds light on the hidden histories beneath our city, the current legislation that covers archaeological resources, how archaeology informs us about who we are and where we came from, and the positive values that arise when a city chooses to engage with its archaeological heritage. 

Over the past several years, there has been an on-going discussion within the city of Richmond concerning its archaeological resources and heritage. Largely sparked by the excavations at the Devil’s Half Acre (Lumpkin’s Jail) and the proposed ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, members of the Richmond community have really begun to think about the material history lying beneath the city’s surface. As was powerfully shown through the Devil’s Half Acre excavations, there are significant material evidence buried throughout the cityscape. This area in Shockoe Bottom was long seen as just surface parking lots, but we know now that there is a tremendous amount of evidence of the city’s past underneath the asphalt. Just because there is no visible evidence of a certain site within the built landscape, does not mean that all materials from that past site are lost.

Archaeology is likely to remain a subject of debate in Richmond both because of the City’s allocation of resources to commemorate the Devil’s Half Acre and the debates surrounding the Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue. Within these debates there is an open acknowledgment of the relationship between the stories we choose to commemorate on the built landscape and our society. Our community is shaped by both the histories that we acknowledge, commemorate, and tell; but also, by the histories that we silence, ignore, and leave buried. Archaeology can be a valuable tool in telling those histories that have not already been commemorated.

The exhibition contributes to this larger discussion. The student’s use twelve different sites to explore Richmond’s archaeology. Through the stories of these various sites, they highlight the current federal and state laws that address archaeology. Additionally, they discuss the limits of these various laws. For example, the construction of the James Center did not trigger either federal or state regulations. The City of Richmond currently has no regulations concerning archaeology. This building was constructed on top of the old Turning Basin, the historic centerpiece of Richmond commerce. While the private developer was sympathetic to the history of the site and aided in the recover of many of the buried canal boats, they nevertheless had not budgeted for archaeological excavations. The recovery of these boats was done hastily without proper scientific methods and considerable evidence of the past was lost.

The students do not just consider the past and present of Richmond archaeology but also consider the future asking: What are the positive impacts of archaeology? Citing examples from both Richmond and from other cities, they show how a city’s dedication to properly addressing its archaeological resources can bring economic, educational, and community benefits. Economically, a city dedicated to preserving its historical sites is attractive to both tourists and its inhabitants, while neighborhoods that maintain their historic feel have higher property values. Educationally, archaeology is a great tool for teaching history as it allows students to literally hold the past in their hands. Moreover, archaeology uses many cutting-edge technologies such as 3D printing, and GIS, providing students of archaeology a diverse range of skills applicable in numerous careers. Community-engaged archaeological research both increases awareness and connection to Richmond’s past, while providing a forum for community discussions. The excavations of Devil’s Half Acre have helped spark community discussions about Richmond’s role in the Domestic Slave trade and about how the legacies of the Slave Trade affect our community today. Overall, they argue that archaeology should not be understood as a hindrance to development, but instead as a key asset to be developed.

The exhibition uses historical images from the Department of Historic Resources, The Valentine, and the Library of Congress. Furthermore, the students created a display of historic stoneware ceramics from the DuVal Pottery. The ceramics are on loan from the Department of Historic Resources. Bernard Means, the Director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at VCU, donated several 3D printed artifacts for display.

UncoveRVA will be open until August 18th. UR Downtown is open from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. You can walk in off the street during these times, but I would encourage you to phone (804-955-4003) ahead to check availability. The main exhibit hall also serves as a meeting room so the whole exhibition is not always open. If you have any questions about the exhibition, then please don’t hesitate to contact me, Derek Miller, at miller.derek.r@gmail.com.