By the weekend, the work progresses well. Meghan’s crew has sunk several test units in the house cellar. The overlying soil deposits are shallow, the result of erosion following nearly one hundred and fifty years of plowing. Meghan had the backhoe excavate a small trench outside the east foundation wall. What’s left of the cellar extends just under a meter into the ground, about three feet.
While the crew tackles the house cellar, Meghan has nearly completed the excavation of the unidentified foundation. Only now, she’s found a small feature in a corner that removes the “unidentified” tag.
Jackson Carter, Wyndham Thicket’s property manager, is by her side, as eager to see the results of Meghan’s work as is his employer. Evelyn is walking through the field with the weekend’s guests to show them the excavation site.
“I thought you’d like to see this,” Meghan tells Jackson before Evelyn arrives. “We have this small pit that was dug into the earth floor of the building. And here are four artifacts at the bottom. What do you think?”
“Two hoe blades, an ax head, and a spoon,” Jackson says. “They’re at the points of the compass, aren’t they?”
His reply is more a statement of fact than a question.
“That they are,” Meghan says.
“You don’t need me to tell you it’s a ritual cache. “You know this is a slave quarter.”
Meghan smiles. “I’ve read about these caches, but I’ve never found one myself.”
“Does Miss Evelyn know?”
“Not yet,” Meghan says, struggling to mask her awkwardness with Jackson’s words. She knows the use of “Miss” with women’s names in the Mid-Atlantic isn’t confined to African-Americans. But growing up in Wisconsin, she heard nothing like it. Even after fifteen years in Virginia, she can’t shake the image of old stereotypes of class and ethnicity.
“Don’t worry, Dr. Bode. She’ll come around to the idea. She’s not her ancestors just like I’m not mine.”
Jackson drops his voice as Evelyn and the guests draw near. “She may be elitist, but she’s not racist. Don’t be afraid to tell her what you’ve found.”
They stand to greet the visitors. Meghan stifles a grimace as she sees Frank Sloma at the head of the group.
Evelyn and the guests stop at the line of yellow caution tape that Meghan set out around the excavations. Meghan has no intention of being sued by someone falling into a test unit and breaking a leg. Evelyn has to respect this demand if she wants Meghan to keep working.
“How goes the dig?” Sloma asks. “Have you uncovered Isaac’s buried deeds?”
“You could say so,” Meghan replies. “We’ve found a couple of privies near the house.”
The other guests laugh, but Sloma only sets his jaw.
Not as much fun being on the receiving end, is it? Meghan thinks.
“She’s found something far more interesting,” Jackson says. “Take a look at the corner of this foundation. What do you see?”
The guests and Evelyn crane their necks. “A hole with something in it,” a woman says. “Is that important?”
Jackson looks to Meghan for her to take up the discussion. But she shakes her head.
“Very,” she says, “but I’ll defer to Mr. Carter to tell you about it. He’s an expert in this area.”
Meghan listens and watches the group’s reactions as Jackson describes the symbolic role of metal in various West African religious systems and how slaves maintained traditional beliefs and customs, despite the relentless suppression by Christian ministers and slave owners. Some guests stand rapt, absorbing the impromptu lesson. Others, like Evelyn, shift on their feet and focus more on Meghan’s students.
Jackson keeps his talk short and friendly. “The students are working on the manor house. Why don’t we see what they’ve found today?”
“It’s all so exciting, isn’t it?” Evelyn says. “Seeing history come alive?”
Earlier, Meghan had set out some of the more interesting artifacts. “I doubt the family meant to lose this,” she says, holding out a fork. “This is high-quality silver. In Colonial times, this was your bank account. Cash was scarce. You kept your wealth in portable silver like table settings and jewelry. If you needed to liquidate some assets, you might sell this fork or a ring.
“The soil you see in the cellar came from just outside the house. I’d bet one of the Walker children played with this fork in the yard and lost or buried it. Mom and Dad probably weren’t happy if they found out.”
“They just blamed it on a slave,” Sloma says.
“Maybe not,” Jackson says. “I’ve gone through most of the old records from that time, and there’s no evidence the Walkers were abusive owners. The Wyndham Thicket slaves could spend Sundays on their own cash crops and skilled crafts and sell them for themselves.”
Meghan hands Evelyn the fork and catches a grateful smile to Jackson from her.
“It’s beautiful,” Evelyn breathes. “This gets a place of honor in the museum I build.”
“I should be able to pin down its date and manufacturer with no problem,” Meghan says. “The official hallmarks are clear. We don’t find many silver artifacts, but they’re great time markers.”
Evelyn returns the fork with a fond look. “I can’t wait to hear who made it and when. I have to find a set that matches it.”
The December light is fading, and Meghan directs the students to begin closing down for the day. Evelyn and her guests return to the house for high tea—and stronger refreshments—around a roaring fire in the new house.
Meghan takes a last look at the cellar before the students cover it with plastic. They’ve reached the brick floor in one corner and will begin new test units during the week.
The neat herringbone pattern in the bricks is slightly off. They must have reset them for some reason, Meghan thinks. I’ll have to check that out after we open more units.
I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 5 next Tuesday.