Monday, August 3, 2009

UGA uncovers history: Workers find clues to university’s beginnings

Remnants of a former building and artifacts dating back more than 200 years have been uncovered beneath the foundations of New College on the University of Georgia’s North Campus, allowing a glimpse into a long-lost chapter of UGA history.

“I felt privileged to climb into the lower basement and view what may actually be the most basic beginnings of this great university,” said UGA President Michael F. Adams. “This appears to be a truly significant find that causes me to anticipate what our archeologists, anthropologists, and others may report based on this finding.”

Workers unearthed the finds in the midst of a $3 million renovation to update the building and restore its look to an approximation of what it looked like when it was built in 1822.

“The find was pure serendipity. The crews must have had a magic touch,” said Erv Garrison, the UGA archaeologist overseeing the findings and recent head of the anthropology department. “What they’re finding is basically intact. And it’s from the very beginning of the university. We can’t trace it back to Josiah Meigs (the president who taught the first classes at UGA) exactly, but we do know it’s at the very dawn of the New College.”

The oldest university-related find is a brick floor discovered about 7 feet beneath New College’s present-day ground level. Sandwiched between two stone walls that still bear scars from an 1830 fire that destroyed the original building, the cross-laid floor may have been part of a kitchen or other room used by the first students or faculty at UGA, said Danny Sniff, associate vice president for facilities planning.

“All these bricks were made from local clay, and you can see a definite difference between these pre-1830 bricks, which are more of a beige to terra cotta color, and the ones used in the later construction,” Sniff said. “The interesting part of this is that brick structure is under the foundations, which we know are from 1819, so this pre-dates that.”

The crew was moving earth to install an elevator for handicapped access and extend the building’s storage space when the discovery was made, Sniff said.

Among the other artifacts found are a handmade spoon, wrought iron nails, blown-glass bottles, glazed cookware and an instrument that resembles a modern fire poker. The crew also found a pottery bowl that dates from Georgia’s late prehistoric Lamar period (1350-1600 A.D.), suggesting that someone at the university found and kept the piece of Native American culture.

But the finds don’t end there.

Garrison and his students used ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint other relics beneath the building. While the images show more objects buried in the rubble, it may not be wise to uncover them just yet, he said.

“My students and I have just started to plow into what we’ve taken out of there, not only drawings, photographs and artifacts—we have a lot of radar data that we just went through. We’re perfectly willing to argue that there’s more down there,” Garrison said.

As the crews continue to renovate New College, danger of disturbing the artifacts is low, Garrison said. The radar has given workers a good idea of where artifacts are located, and if the workers find anything that may be of interest, they call Garrison, who makes it to the site most every day to study what’s been found.

“I’m on speed dial with the contractor right now. If they see anything, I’ll be over in 10 minutes with my hard hat talking with the job superintendent and Danny Sniff, and we’ll try to figure out what we’ve found now,” Garrison said. “It’s been an exciting few days.”

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