Archaeologists and local historians — as well as students from Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg — studied and explored the Oak Hill Plantation site in southwestern Pittsylvania County in the piercing cold Saturday.
The property — which belongs to the Hairston family — is located in the Berry Hill Road area and has the remnants of a main house built in 1823, a barn, slave quarters, the foundation of an old hunting lodge, terraced gardens and other features.
The three students, historic preservation majors led by University of Mary Washington Professor Douglas W. Sanford, measured, photographed and documented the slave dwelling, which included a pit that once stored personal items.
They plan to enter the collected information into a public database.
Senior Marissa Kulis said examining the slave quarters allowed them to compare the building to other similar dwellings across the state to check for trends.
It’s important to study and document the structures because they will “disappear during our lifetimes,” said senior Mary Fesak.
Sanford said he wanted to explore and document less surveyed areas across Virginia, including Pittsylvania County.
“It’s a great opportunity for the students to see their academic skills and knowledge applied,” Sanford said.
Sanford said the information will be entered online at www.vaslavehousing.org, a site that is still under construction.
At another part of the property, Tom Klatka, regional archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, measured the terraced gardens. In their day, they included boxwoods and flowers. Klatka double-checked to make sure they’re the largest terraced gardens in the state.
“We really don’t have an overarching goal in mind,” Klatka said of the archaeologists’ activities Saturday, adding that the information will go into public archives. Klatka and others at the site Saturday — including Preservation Virginia Field Representative Sonja Ingram and Mark Joyner, founder and project director of the Association for the Study of Archaeological Properties — were there to learn as much as they could about the site.
Dean Hairston, whose great-great grandparents were slaves at the plantation, was also at the site providing historical context for its structures.
Joyner — also on the board of directors of historical societies in Danville and Pittsylvania County — said he would like to one day see the property open to the public for tours with walking trails and interpretive historic markers.
At the peak of their empire, the Hairston family — which included white slave owners and black slaves — had 45 estates in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi, Hairston said.