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Digging for Stories

The glass bottles, tobacco pipe stems, buttons, ceramic fragments and animal remains unearthed at Rock Hall Museum reveal a compelling story, and Hofstra University anthropology students are proud to help tell it.

The recovered items are reminders of a chapter in Long Island history not often discussed: The region was once home to a sizable slave population.

“It’s been really exciting to begin piecing together the history of the people who lived here,” said anthropology major Autumn Christopher. “It’s a history that wasn’t reflected in town and census records. Slavery on Long Island and in New York is not talked about much. I’m glad to be a part of helping to get the word out.”

Archaeology often conjures up images of dinosaur bones and scenes from Indiana Jones movies. But Dr. Bradley Phillippi, who teaches Anthropology 33 – Archaeology Field Methods – said the work he and his students are doing at a historic mansion in Lawrence, NY, is no less exciting.

Archaeology Field School

“We may not be excavating at the base of pyramids or abandoned temples,” he said, “but the students know this is important work because we are looking for the items and tools used, broken and discarded in the past and deposited in the ground by people who have been largely forgotten. We’ll put them back together to learn about their lives.”

Rock Hall, a Georgian colonial landmark house, was built in 1767 for Josiah Martin, an English sugar plantation owner who was born and raised on the island of Antigua. At the time of his retirement, Martin could have retreated to the idyllic English countryside. Instead, he purchased 600 acres on Long Island to build his dream home near New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.

Archaeology Field School - HUWorldChangers

Most significant, Phillippi said, is that Martin owned a number of enslaved laborers. “The most at one time in what is now Nassau County and maybe even all of Long Island,” Phillippi said.

In the early 19th century, the home was taken over by the Hewletts, an established Long Island family. They used it as their farm home, a guest home and a summer home. Eventually, the Hewletts gifted Rock Hall to the Town of Hempstead.

“Rock Hall is an iconic site for the Town of Hempstead,” said Phillippi. “But the history of the people of color who lived here – both enslaved and free – is something that the community is just starting to reconcile. They contributed a lot to the making of this site, and so little is known about them.”

The Hofstra team is working an area where a few outbuildings, constructed in the early 19th century, once stood. This is where a detached kitchen or service area may have been and where the laborers slept and spent their nonworking hours.

Using a trowel, the students search for artifacts by meticulously digging a few centimeters at a time. When they have excavated enough earth to fill a 10-liter bucket, they put the soil through a large sieve to recover any additional items they may have missed.

After sieving, they work with a teammate to record the horizontal and vertical locations of the recovered artifacts. The process is called point provenience. The students also sketch the items they find and the ground surface. Artifacts are bagged, numbered, and transported back to Hofstra’s Center for Public Archaeology for further analysis and identification.

“That’s why the Center for Public Archaeology exists,” Philippi said. “There are groups of people absent from our local narratives. We are here to make a record of their histories and make sure they are remembered.”

Archaeology Field School - HUWorldChangers

Autumn Christopher, who is planning to pursue a career in forensic archaeology, says this is exactly the experience she was hoping for this summer. “I love getting my hands dirty. My previous archaeology classes were in a classroom, and while they were very interesting, there is something to be said for being out in the field – digging and discovering the things these people used.”

Although there is an academic component, including reading assignments, tours and lectures, the majority of the class involves the excavation.

“There’s only so much you can teach about archaeology in the classroom,” Philippi said. “While there are other summer courses that are more conventional, this one is 100 percent outdoors.”

Beyond developing their archeological skills, Phillippi said the students also build skills that they can use broadly – no matter what profession. “Attention to detail. Patience. Drive and motivation. An appreciation for history.”

Anthropology major Sarah Klush ‘20 feels a responsibility to do right by the people whose history they are examining. “It’s important to understand the past and to know how we got to where we are today,” she said. “Each generation impacts the next and knowing who was here before you helps you find a better path to the future.” 

Students on Dig