UVa students seek to solve Highland’s mysteries

June 18, 2017

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Historic interpretation continues to undergo revision at Highland, the Albemarle County home of President James Monroe.

Last year, for instance, archaeologists uncovered the foundation of Monroe’s house. They determined that a building they thought was a wing of Monroe’s house — which he and his family occupied from 1799 to 1825 — was really a guest house.

And archaeologists are still digging for clues around the 535-acre property, each day learning something new about the estate that once belonged to the fifth president.

University of Virginia students have a unique opportunity to be part of this change, as they help unravel the mysteries surrounding Monroe’s plantation.

On a recent afternoon, Kyle Edwards, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, and fourth-year student Christina Monroe dug into an area near the foundation of a two-story white building adjacent to the guest house.

Scholars believe this building housed the property’s overseer — who was charged with supervising the work of enslaved laborers — but no one is entirely sure what its purpose was or when it was built.

Working alongside Christina Monroe, Edwards dug into a small patch of red soil adjacent to the house, exposing the cement foundation underneath.

“This foundation was completed in the early 20th century,” Edwards said. ”(But) it could have been added later.”

The real story will come from the artifacts they uncover while digging into the builder’s trench, Edwards said, which workers would have dug during the initial construction. So far, Edwards and Monroe have unearthed bits of ceramic ware — probably a bowl, Edwards said — and some nails and chunks of mortar.

The mortar is of particular interest to Edwards, but they won’t be able to date it without some lab analysis later.

Working with a local archaeological firm, UVa students have conducted this painstaking work on about 10 acres surrounding the main house. Between the digs and close reading of the plantation’s records, historians are hoping to get a better idea of how it looked during Monroe’s day.

Edwards said he’s also hoping to learn more about how enslaved laborers on the property — who were the majority of residents during Monroe’s time — lived their lives.

“We’re trying to disentangle the different branches here at Highland,” he said. “We don’t only have the remnants from when Monroe lived here.”

UVa students also are helping the estate to revise some of its public exhibits to fit in with this new information. Highland enlisted the help of the School of Architecture to come up with ideas to present the remnants of the main house, where Monroe himself had lived and which was uncovered during a dig last year.

Nothing remains of the building, which is thought to have burned down, except a foundation. Highland’s staff was faced with the challenge of presenting it to the public.

Jill Lorde, a member of the Monroe Commission and an instructor in architecture school, suggested asking the students for ideas.

“They could think of the site in three dimensions — in ways that historians may not be able to. If we could give the students some framework,” she said, “they could take that and come up with ways for the public to interpret it.”

The class was split into four groups. Two of the four came up with proposals to use augmented reality glasses, which superimpose virtual images onto real life. One group’s proposal would help visitors visualize Monroe’s house when it still stood; another envisioned the use of glasses to help visitors see life on the plantation as a whole during Monroe’s time.

Lisa A. Reilly, who taught the course, said students noticed that only a small part of the site was being covered on tours. The students also wanted to provide a more expansive view of the property — to go beyond Monroe and his family.

“They wanted to exploit the beauty of Highland, as well as the idea that a large group of people, both enslaved and free, made Highland possible and Monroe’s life there possible,” Reilly said. “Hence, the projects looked at agriculture production, visitors, enslaved people and the longer history of the site post-Monroe.”

The students presented their work to the commission. Lorde said Highland will probably incorporate parts of all the proposals into their tours, including wearable augmented reality glasses from the Richmond firm Art Glass.

“Everyone was impressed by the students’ work,” she said. “It’s a great jumping-off point.”

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