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Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum approached Blanton about conducting research on the history of Wilson's birthplace. 

The birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, located in Staunton, Virginia, has been the focus of recent archeological research aimed at establishing a more accurate historical timeline of the property. The site is known to be one of the showplaces of Staunton, which has a rich history with several unanswered questions. JMU students and faculty have been heavily involved in efforts to uncover the property’s history.

“I live in Staunton, so I have some familiarity with the people who run the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library,” Dennis Blanton, associate professor of anthropology at JMU said. “I’ve expressed interest locally in bringing our archeological expertise to Staunton. It’s a city that prides itself on historic preservation.”

Blanton was approached by the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum about contributing to the project that would begin in July 2018. The time frame for the initial excavation was too short to get students involved on-site, but Blanton hopes that he’ll give JMU students the ability to lead a secondary excavation in the future, rather than only having them involved in the analysis of the findings.

The WWPL proposed the project when numerous boxwood trees were removed from the property, exposing a significant amount of land in the property’s garden. This opportunity led to the idea of an initial test dig with the goal of establishing whether a larger-scale excavation of the property could further explain the history of the home and its previous occupants.

“We think that the potential findings can be used as a springboard to tell a somewhat untold story of mid-19th century Staunton,” Beth Scripps, operations manager for the WWPL said. “He was born here in the 1850s, but he came back to Staunton throughout his life. We want to do a better job of representing what it was that kept drawing him back.”

The Presbyterian church constructed the property, known as “The Manse,” in the mid-19th century. Blanton, along with a group of roughly 25 volunteers, conducted shovel tests on the site. Artifacts such as marbles, home decor, children’s toys and animal bones have been found, which helps tell a more accurate story of the house’s past. Some of these findings, including a clay pipe and double-gilt button, predate the construction of the house, indicating a prior occupancy. It’s currently believed that some of the artifacts date back to the 1830s, roughly 20 years before Wilson’s birth. 

Additionally, pottery and porcelain artifacts have been discovered, representing an elegant lifestyle, which, according to Beth Scripps, was not prominent in the Shenandoah Valley at the time. These findings could expose an untold story about the previous occupants of the site.

“We’ve documented and isolated a few deposits in the backyard where people were routinely discarding all kinds of things from the house,” Blanton said. “If we arrange to go back, which it looks like we will, we will, in larger excavations, try to illuminate details about the day-to-day lives of these Presbyterian families.”

The WWPL is running an exhibit to display the artifacts found in the excavation until March 17. It focuses on informing the public of what the team has uncovered thus far, and explains the significance attached to these artifacts.

Following the initial excavation, the artifacts were sent to and processed by the archeological research laboratory at JMU. The research laboratory then issued a report back in December, suggesting what future steps to take regarding the potential larger excavation.

After the field work was completed, the findings were brought back to the JMU research lab. Once there, they were subject to processing and analysis by JMU students who worked in the lab. Various methods are used by the individuals involved in analyzing the findings to get the most accurate date possible.

“It depends on the artifact type,” Katie Brauckmann, a junior anthropology major, said. “For things like ceramics, they date to a certain period at which they were produced, which once you recognize them, you can plug them into a formula to get a mean date. The same thing goes for window glass, but you can determine it based on the thickness.”

The archeology team is working to secure funding for its planned excavation this summer, with the goal of digging even deeper to resolve the unanswered questions that have arisen from the first excavation.

“This project exemplifies, in a way, the kind of engaged activity we at JMU get ourselves involved in,” Blanton said. “We strive to be the model of the engaged university, so this is a great example of how we’re taking unique expertise we have on campus and taking it to communities and organizations that don’t have it, but can really benefit from it.”

Contact Connor Murphy at murph2cj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.