It’s one thing to know the history of a place, quite another to watch that history coming up out of the ground.
That’s why two Civil War mini-balls discovered at Historic Sandusky this month provided a measure of validation for executive director Greg Starbuck.
Since Sandusky was just purchased from private ownership in 2000, there have been only a few tentative efforts at archaeological exploration so far.
“These are the first Civil War artifacts we’ve found here in 11 years,” Starbuck said. “It’s important to be able to show people about our history as well as tell them.”
Built in 1808,Sandusky is best known for serving as the field headquarters for Union Gen. David Hunter at the Battle of Lynchburg. It has also been visited by three presidents — Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley were aides to Hunter, Thomas Jefferson was a neighbor.
Prior to the Civil War, it was a typical southern plantation of several hundred acres, most of the labor performed by slaves.
The unfired mini-balls, which Starbuck theorized had been dropped by a soldier during the Battle of Lynchburg, were unearthed Thursday morning by Lynchburg College student Marshall Dunn — just a few days before the 149th anniversary of the battle this week.
Dunn, three other Lynchburg College students (Joe Olsen, Betty Stinson and Victoria Lunsford) and Paula Addai of Randolph College have spent four weeks in May and June on their hands and knees behind the Sandusky house, searching not only for random relics but also the location of a detached kitchen dating back to the plantation period.
The dig is part of a partnership between the Historic Sandusky Foundation and Lynchburg College that offers students the opportunity for hands-on learning and college credit in return for volunteer labor.
“They don’t want to stop, even for lunch,” Starbuck said. “They just want to keep digging. It’s really impressive.”
And Starbuck is digging with them.
“I’m going for another degree,” he said, “and I can get credit for doing something in my backyard. I’d be crazy not to take advantage of it.”
This is not ancient history, but a case study in how quickly artifacts can be hidden by time and soil, said Randolph College professor Lori Lee, who is directing the student effort.
“The kitchen was still standing into the 1930s,” said Lee, who has also done archaeological work at Poplar Forest, “and then it was torn down. A lot of what we’re finding are fragments of things from that destruction. We found a piece of ceramic dated between 1790 and 1840.”
Starbuck would like to recreate the kitchen — similar to one at the Lynchburg Museum System’s Point of Honor, the Colonial-era home of Dr. George Cabell Sr. — and use it for period cooking demonstrations.
Student archaeologist Victoria Lunsford remembers playing on the Sandusky property as a child growing up in that neighborhood.
On a recent afternoon, her face said that she was still playing. A red clay stain adorned one cheek and her eyes were wide.
“I just love this,” she said. “It’s what I want to do for a career, and I have a special interest in finding objects that were part of peoples’ lives, things they used every day.”
The class begins its fifth of six weeks on Monday. After that, the excavation site may remain as it is until another group of students arrives next summer, or work may resume sooner if a grant is approved.
Meanwhile, though, the students are gradually raising the bar on discovery.
“The first week, we got all excited if we found a piece of brick the size of a dime,” said Lunsford. “Then we found the walkway.”
And, just before a thunderstorm arrived Thursday afternoon, a metal spigot emerged from the clay.
“People think archaeology is all about the big things, like buildings,” said Starbuck, “but really, a lot of it is about the little items, the random stuff you might not expect – like the harmonica reed that turned up the other day.
“Not that it wouldn’t be great to find a building.”