The Germanna Foundation: digging into history

Germanna Foundation archaeologist Dr. Eric Larsen and new foundation executive director Timothy Sutphin stand in front of the Hitt Archaeology Center at the foundation’s eastern Orange County property. The center is expected to be open this summer. As the foundation learns more about the early German settlers, it hopes to raise the profile of the importance of the Germanna settlement in Virginia history.

With a new executive director and a new archaeology center under roof, the Germanna Foundation is making substantial progress in sharing and understanding the critical role the 18th-century eastern Orange County settlement played in the history of the commonwealth. 

The foundation hired Timothy Sutphin as its executive director in December and expects its Hitt Archaeology Center to be open and operational by the summer.

The Germanna Foundation hopes the center will be a local attraction where Germanna descendants, neighbors, students and scholars can visit and learn. The facility is currently under construction on the group’s Route 3 property, and is the foundation’s latest effort to not only preserve the heritage of 1714 and 1717 German settlers, but also to educate folks on a part of history not widely-known … yet.

Construction on the archaeology center began last October with a groundbreaking ceremony. Today, the 3,000-square-foot, two-story building has walls and a roof and is just months from completion.

“Now that we will have some space, it will allow us to really process artifacts, organize them and be able to set ourselves up to look at them, analyze them and better understand the stories that they give us glimpses into,” said Germanna Foundation archaeologist Dr. Eric Larsen. “This is really a culmination of what we began in the field. It’s very exciting. I’m pinching myself still as I see this [facility] going up every day.”

The Germanna Foundation currently operates a visitor center at its property at 2062 Germanna Highway. The new archaeology space is being constructed next to the foundation’s existing building.

The foundation’s property includes 179 acres of the original land settled by German families as early as 1714, under the direction of Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood. The first wave of German settlers consisted of iron workers and miners Spotswood hoped to use to form a mining industry in the area and as frontier defense.

In 2013, the University of Mary Washington transferred more than 60 acres to the foundation including the site of the Enchanted Castle and Fort Germanna on Route 3 (Germanna Highway) across from the visitor center. A year later, the Germanna Foundation hired Dr. Larsen as its archaeologist. Since then, he has restarted the archaeological exploration of the Enchanted Castle and Fort Germanna site, bringing along volunteers, interns and field school students to aid in the endeavor.

The site was previously studied by University of Mary Washington archaeology students who unearthedabout a 10-foot long trench with soil markings indicating the fort’s wooden, palisaded wall, as well as the remains of Spotswood’s Enchanted Castle, built in the 1720s shortly after demolishing the fort. Mary Washington students ceased work in 1995, when funding for their program ran out.

Twenty years later, Larsen and his team began excavations again. While the goal of the excavations at the site is to discover Fort Germanna, the foundation is learning about the rest of the site’s history as well, including Spotswood’s Enchanted Castle that was there from about 1720-1750 and the Gordon Farm dating back to 1790, explained Larsen. The site also can help tell the story of enslaved Africans and Native Americans of the region, he added.

Since restarting the foundation’s archaeology program, Larsen has been working in loaned lab space at the neighboring Germanna Community College Locust Grove Campus.

The archaeology building will include office space, lab space, a kitchenette and break room and space for displaying artifacts, as well as a multi-purpose room. He said he is excited for the potential the new building will allow, like the ability to invite the community into the space and experience the work being done. Larsen said he anticipates the space being used as a community center, where “people can come and ask questions about life on the frontier, migrations and true American identity.” He also would like to give people the ability to participate in the archaeological process as volunteers with the foundation.

“Archaeology is kind of a really specific set of tools, but the reality is that archaeologists don’t work alone,” Larsen said. “It works better when more people tackle a problem. If we can invite our community to come and sort of look at it and help us and offer their suggestions, I think that’s great. We can together explore this little community of Germanna—its past and also its disappearance off the map.”

That’s the draw that brought Sutphin to the area. The lifelong Virginian joined the foundation in December, after 27 years working in public history with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

“The chance to lead the Germanna Foundation in a new and exciting direction and build on the success of 60 years of stewardship is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.

In his position, Sutphin is tasked with leading the foundation into a new era—one that shines light on the 300 year-old American story– through the experience of Germanna settlers and descendants by using archaeological, historical and genealogical research and interpretation.

“I think everyone has narrowly defined Germanna as genealogy and its got such a larger story to tell,” Sutphin said. “It’s a story of settlement on the frontier. It’s a story of industry. It’s a story of skilled laborers coming here and building a better life for themselves.”

The group’s interest in archaeology will not replace its focus on genealogy, he stressed, noting it’s actually genealogy preservation that has saved Germanna’s story in the first place.

“This isn’t about replacing the core, rather it’s about expanding it,” he said.

Though he was familiar with Spotswood from his time at Williamsburg, Sutphin said he was unaware of the Germanna story, as he is finding out a lot of people are. He said he finds it disappointing more people don’t know the importance of Germanna.

“It’s part of the fabric of Virginia,” he said.

“Virginians seem to be very aware of their histories, but this is one that has sort of fallen through the cracks,” Larsen added. “It’s great to have such wonderful material to share such a great story and the foundation is in a really good place to do that now.”

Sutphin is determined to raise the profile of the Germanna story, noting he’d love to see it taught as part of the fourth-grade Virginia history curriculum.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have every fourth-grader in Orange County take a field trip out here? Again, I don’t think that’s a bridge too far,” he added.

Germanna Foundation President Marc Wheat said he envisions Germanna being the third leg on the American history stool that includes Jamestown and Williamsburg.

Sutphin said he would like Germanna to be part of a national conversation like those other Virginia sites, but emphasized Germanna is in a unique situation since the settlement’s time span was relatively short compared to those of the others.

“This wasn’t much like Jamestown where you had English gentlemen coming to the New World looking for gold,” he said. “These folks, these Germans, knew exactly what they would be doing. They knew why they were coming here and then they also knew what their dreams and aspirations were after their indentured time was over.”

Both Sutphin and Larsen are excited at all the potential Germanna has to interpret the past and remain relevant into the future.

“We have a really unique opportunity to explore a story that I think is both fascinating and does have connections with us even today, like the immigration angle,” Larsen said.

“I’m a firm believer that we need to understand history to understand where we are today and where we’re going today,” Sutphin said. “Immigration is a big subject of conversation right now and here we’ve got an organized group of immigrants settling on the frontier of the British Empire. If we try to understand why they were here, I think we’ll find that the same desires, hopes and wishes that were there in 1714 are here in 2019. I think it’s a relevant conversation and I want Germanna to remain relevant to the conversations that are happening.”

Long-term, Larsen said he’d like to see the archaeology program thrive and serve as a training opportunity for both volunteers and students interested in the science.

Meanwhile, Larsen’s short-term goal is to put the new archaeology center to good use. This summer, he plans to take field school students from Virginia Commonwealth University to the foundation’s Salubria property in Culpeper to survey the property. Back at the lab, he plans to begin processing artifacts he and the field team have found over the past three years at the fort and Enchanted Castle site. Larsen said he’d like to more closely examine what findings the foundation have unearthed before discovering more.

“Once we have a report and an idea of how the landscape has been changed over the 300 years since the fort was there, then we will go back out again with new information, new, fresh eyes,” he said.

The Germanna Foundation encourages the public to attend upcoming public access days at both the Salubria and the fort and Enchanted Castle sites. The events will allow those interested to visit the archaeology sites, to see the progress being made at the site firsthand, talk with archaeologists and learn more about the foundation’s mission.

Public access days at Salubria are scheduled for Friday, June 21, from 10:30 to 2:30 p.m. and Friday, July 5, from 10:30 to 2:30 p.m. Fort Germanna, not normally open to the public, will be open to visitors on Thursday, July 18, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursday, Aug. 1, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Load comments