Questions Lie Beneath the Surface of Junior Housing Site
By Paul Lagarde For much of the past semester, Geology department head Chris Connors, with the help of his Geophysics students, has been studying the land where the new third-year housing will be built. The land in question, specifically the southeastern corner of the rugby field, had been previously filled and leveled after multiple University modifications to the hill’s shape, and Connors and the Geophysics students want to find out what lies underneath.
“The students are more motivated when it is something real, and not just some canned, didactic experience,” Connors told The Spectator.
University archaeologist Don Gaylord, who has been working on the project with Connors and the class, told The Spectator that they decided to study this particular area after he was notified by an archaeology company that overhead photos of the area from the early 1930s depicted a copse of trees surrounded by an open agricultural field.
“It’s uncommon to have an entire field being used for agriculture and just one area unused, and so there are some common possibilities that you find in an agricultural field where that kind of thing is going on,” Gaylord said. “It could be an old derelict building that was once standing in this area and they weren't plowing here because of the collapsed building. There could be an outcrop of bedrock. On a hilltop like this, the presence of bedrock outcrop is not uncommon. Cemeteries are also common in fields like that where you see a copse of trees.”
While both Connors and Gaylord stated that the evidence gathered so far did not suggest that it was a cemetery, they stated that they could not rule out the possibility entirely. “There always is the possibility of a family cemetery associated with the house. You see that throughout the eastern United States with small family plots near farmhouses,” Gaylord said.
When The Spectator asked Gaylord about a rumor that the third-year housing site had possibly been a slave cemetery, he stated that it was one possible theory, due to the fact that the land had previously been a farm owned by the Alexander family. He stated that William Alexander had been one of the inaugural trustees of the University in 1782, and that his son Andrew had swapped the front campus for the back campus in 1804, establishing his farm on the Liberty Hall property.
“Tax records show that he owned enslaved people throughout the period until 1841,” he said. “So there were enslaved people farming here for Andrew Alexander, but that’s the only possible connection.”
He stated that at this point in the tests, he did not think that there was a cemetery in the area, stating that the pattern of a cemetery should be “pretty striking.” For most houses, he said, you would expect to see a sizable anomaly in the form of a basement.
All testing done to this point has been conducted using the resistivity method, which sends electric currents down into the soil. This method is useful because it is less expensive and time-consuming than digging into the ground to find out what is underneath. Connors told The Spectator that he may conduct further testing using the seismic refraction method, which uses sound waves instead of electricity.
Ultimately, both Connors and Gaylord stressed that no method, short of digging into the earth, could answer any question with 100 percent certainty. It will be interesting to see the results of future testing on the site, as well as the impact they will have on our understanding of the university’s history.