FREDERICK, Md. – Shayla Monroe rises at 4 a.m. for her commute from Washington to Frederick, Md., eagerly anticipating the work ahead: digging through the trash.
Monroe is one of six area university students hired this summer through a grant by the U.S. Department of Interior to excavate former slave dwellings on what is now the Best Farm in Monocacy National Battlefield.
“There are mornings when I can’t wait to get my hands in this dirt,” Monroe said, brushing away clumps of soil that clung to late 18th century to early 19th century porcine jaw bones and bits of ceramic in a midden the team discovered.
The midden is a sort of trash heap kept outside the dwellings where the slaves threw away old or broken items, Monroe said.
The French-Catholic family that fled the growing slave revolt in St. Domingue (now Haiti) in 1793 had by 1800 amassed about 90 slaves on a 748-acre plantation just outside Frederick, making them the county’s second-largest slave holder.
Archaeologists discovered the site in 2003 but postponed their work until this summer, when a Youth Intake Program grant allowed the excavation to continue.
Monroe and the others have sifted through broken dishes, wine jug shards, a horse bit, an animal’s tooth, and a large penny coin from 1825 or 1826, trying to get a sense of what daily life was like for the enslaved population that toiled there. Lives barely, if ever, recorded in the public record.
Each new find reveals not just the object but a host of questions waiting for further exploration, she said.
Monroe, a Howard University senior from Memphis, Tenn., began her university studies in 1996 and left in 2000 as an English literature major.
She bounced around for eight years between various adventures and interests, honing in on historical linguistics and texts when she returned to Howard.
As a student in an anthropology class, Monroe realized she needed field experience to do the type of work she enjoyed.
She is majoring in anthropology and English literature and plans to graduate in December 2011 and then attend graduate school.
“I had no idea I would become addicted to archaeology the way that I have,” she said.
Recently, Monroe found a fish scale that seemed too large to have come from a fish in the nearby Monocacy River.
She wants to know how the enslaved people living at the farm, known as L’Hermitage, likely bartered or traded to obtain not just that fish but other goods.
“It opens up all these possibilities,” Monroe said.
By next fall, much of the initial collection, analysis and interpretation of the find will be published in a report.
Still, some questions nag at Monroe, like how the dozen slaves that accompanied the Vincendiere family who owned the farm interacted with those people bought locally. That question may never be answered.
“(But) we can answer some, through time and research,” Monroe said.