Archaeologists showcase finds from refugee slave camp

Grand Contraband Camp excavation site at Armistead Avenue and Lincoln Street in Downtown Hampton, July 19, 2014. (WAVY/Catherine Rogers)

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — Archaeologists are uncovering pieces of Hampton’s history downtown, and Friday they took tarps off several dig sites and showed the public what they’ve recovered.

An axe head, scissors, a buckle and a copper alloy spoon were a few of the more impressive finds showcased during the open house for the excavation. The site sits at the corner of Armistead Avenue and Lincoln Street.

“This is just the tip, of the tip, of the tip, of the iceberg as to what’s actually here,” said James River Institute for Archaeology Principle Archaeologist Nick Luccketti.

Photos: Archaeologists dig up Hampton’s history

Artifacts uncovered at the dig site of the Grand Contraband Camp in Downtown Hampton (WAVY/Catherine Rogers)
Artifacts uncovered at the dig site of the Grand Contraband Camp in Downtown Hampton (WAVY/Catherine Rogers)

In May, archaeologists began carefully scraping away topsoil from the plot, where the Harbor Square Apartments stood in recent years. The land, owned by the Hampton Redevelopment and Housing Authority, is likely to be redeveloped. But before it is opened to private developers, the city contracted the James River Institute for Archaeology (JRIA) to see if evidence of the Grand Contraband Camp was still in tact.

After a three-week investigation, the firm says trash pits, a partially excavated well, evidence of fence lines, and more than 170 archaeological features prove the area was where thousands of runaway slaves fled to during the Civil War.

“We do have a possible alley way. The soil is a different color, so you have a nice clear brown stripe running across. We did find a button that predates the Civil War. It looks like it’s somewhere between 1812 and 1830. We found stuff right away, and pretty much everything we found was in the first week or so,” Joe Dietmeier with JRIA told last month.

Hampton played a unique role in the story of American slaves gaining their independence. Historians say it’s where one of the first communities of freed slaves in the U.S. developed in the mid-1800s. This was after three local slaves presented their case for freedom to the commander of Fort Monroe.

Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler granted them asylum as “contraband of war,” and news spread among the enslaved. Thousands fled to the army post soon referred to as “Freedom Fort,” and two camps were established for them in Hampton. Years later, lots of the land were sold to freed African American families, who lived there for generations.

Historians with JRIA and the Hampton History Museum say this area spans between Lincoln Street and West Pembroke Avenue. Further archaeological investigation, they say, will likely give insight into the Contraband Camp’s development and the earliest years of African American land ownership.

Luccketti said the city has made moves to allow for a second phase of the excavation, which will likely be opened to bids from other archaeology firms.

To see pictures from the open house and learn more about history of the Grand Contraband Camp, check out this photo gallery: Archaeologists dig up Hampton’s history.

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