High School Students Dig Deep Into Untold Stories

Students in the Urban Archeology Corps measure and dig at the Sykes site
Students in the Urban Archeology Corps measure and dig at the Sykes site

Catherine Cozzi

This past summer, Richmond National Battlefield Park partnered with the non-profit Groundwork RVA to bring a special experience to eight Richmond city high school students. These students were interns in Richmond's first Urban Archeology Corps, and spent the summer getting immersed in the archeology of a site once owned by members of a free black community.

The site, now owned by the National Park Service, was once owned by the Sykes brothers, descendants of slaves freed in 1777 by the will of John Pleasants. The former slaves formed the Gravel Hill community on about 12 miles southeast of Richmond. The site also witnessed the Battle of Glendale in 1862.

Following an orientation experience at Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, the students started their project by researching the Gravel Hill community at the Library of Virginia and learning archeological terms and practices. They also spent time with members of the Gravel Hill community collecting oral histories, followed by two weeks of digging at the site with NPS and Groundwork RVA staff, including NPS archaeologist Erik Kreusch of the Northeast Regional Office.

The work made several students consider archeology as a field of study, and connected them to the National Park Service’s centennial goals of creating youth stewardship in the parks.

“Everyone uses a park differently, but even if they don’t become archeologists at least it will always be in back of their mind that these are special places and they will become our next generation of stewards and the people who care for these places,” Kreusch told WCVE News.

artifacts found by the Corps--bottle stopper, charcoal
A glass bottle stopper and charcoal bits found by the Corps.

NPS/Lindsey Kellogg

After cataloguing thousands of items, the students held a viewing of their artifacts at the Gravel Hill Baptist Church. Among the objects were Civil War-era bullets, glass bottle stoppers and a key.

The students also created a video about their experience, highlighting the lack of stories about minority communities like Gravel Hill and the breadth of work that went into their project.

Before I came into this, usually when I hear the word archeology I think of pure digging and things like that but over the few weeks we’ve been working I’ve learned there’s a lot more to archeology than just digging, there’s the research, the cataloging we’re doing now, and it’s a lot of work but at the end of the day it really pays off,” said Corps member Kalen Gilliam.