By Sarah Pride
Patrick Henry College
Erin Lester (L) and Stephanie Schultz (R) pose in front of the dig site at Montpelier, James Madison's Virginia home
“[As a child], I would consume any books, movies, and computer programs that I could get my hands on, if they had something to do with ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome,” Lester muses. “But I gave up the idea in junior high once I found out that it required a Ph.D. and many years of school.”
Nonetheless, this summer the Patrick Henry College junior finds herself sifting dirt, exploring the grounds at Montpelier, James Madison’s Virginia home. A History major, Lester says the internship exceeds her modest summer expectations, as she finds herself immersed in a fascinating learning experience… that also pays a stipend.
Lester and senior Stephanie Schultz, who is enjoying the same internship, begin their day at 7:30a.m. First, they set up the dig site by removing the sandbags, tarp, and planks that cover the ground at night and then prepare the essential tools, supplies, and tents used to protect the site from intense sunlight. Teams of two work together to excavate 5’ x 5’ squares called “units,” digging down through layers of dirt and sifting it for artifacts. Around 3:30, they pack up the site for the day, having typically unearthed any number of samples of Madison-era “glass, ceramic, nails, and animal bone,” and sometimes other, “most unusual,” items.
“My second week on the dig I found part of a late-nineteenth-century carpet bowl (used for a game like bocce ball, only indoors),” she recounts cheerfully.
And while the idea of scouring acreage once owned by a renowned Founding Father who served as the fourth President of the United States (1809–1817) sounded exciting, Lester has learned that archaeology actually involves a large amount of repetitive, hard, dirty work.. Hardly disappointed nonetheless, she has secured what most college students seeking summer work would deem a legitimate Triple Crown: hands-on experience, college credit, and an actual paycheck.
How the internship will figure into her future plans, she doesn’t yet know. But it meshes well with some of her deepest convictions about a life well-lived. After graduation from PHC, Lester says that while she would “love to work in the field of history,” she’s certain that whatever opportunities come her way, she will pursue her love of learning with a passion.
Read more about archaeology at Montpelier.