You Dig It? Hands-on History Lessons

Each spring, thousands of students visit Mount Vernon to learn about history in unique and surprising ways. Last week, a group of high school seniors from Akron, Ohio, visited the estate to study archaeology. James Anderson, an alumnus of the George Washington Teachers Institute, has brought his archaeology class to the estate for the last five years to get hands-on experience digging at various locations, including the Slave Cemetery.

Despite the volumes of documents from George Washington’s time, not much has ever been written about Mount Vernon’s Slave Cemetery. In 2014, our archaeology staff began a multi-year project to learn more about the history of the site and discover how many individuals are buried in the cemetery.

Working side-by-side with Joe Downer and Lily Carhart of Mount Vernon’s archaeology staff, the group learned how to sift soil, look for artifacts, survey the land with GPS mapping, and properly document their work. The students also discussed the ethics of digging in the cemetery, grappling with how to show the utmost respect to those buried at the site.

Under the guidance of Downer and Carhart, the students discovered archaeology can help commemorate the lives of the enslaved individuals who lived and died at Mount Vernon by thoroughly documenting the locations of individual burials on the landscape.

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