New archaeology center aims to dig through the Valley’s past

Mountain Valley Archaeology is a non-profit organization based in Mount Crawford. (Photo courtesy of Carole Nash)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

As Harrisonburg’s unofficial resident archeologist, Carole Nash gets called on a lot. In recent years, Nash and her team uncovered that the Thomas Harrison House in downtown Harrisonburg was never inhabited by Thomas Harrison at all. She was also called on to talk about the lost history of razed buildings in January of 2020, when city officials considered the idea of demolishing the Denton building. 

“There are other great archeologists in our region,” Nash said. “But since my focus is really on the Blue Ridge and the Valley and the Appalachians, I am the one who often answers the questions that come up about our area.” 

Nash, who grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is an associate professor in the School of Integrated Sciences at JMU, where she has taught for 33 years. Nash has also been a Virginia-focused archeologist for more than 40 years. 

“I’ve always believed that there are very important stories that are found in small places,” Nash said. “With archeology, people think of the glamour of it. They think of Egypt, they think of Greece and that sort of thing, when really, there are just fascinating sites right out our back doors.”

Now Nash is planning the late-September opening of Mountain Valley Archaeology in Mount Crawford, a nonprofit brick-and-mortar center where research, education and outreach of the history of the Valley can be blended and shared. The board of directors includes Michael Barber, a retired state archaeologist, and Cindy Schroer, an award-winning Augusta County science teacher.

Citizen science and engagement is going to be a large part of the center’s mission. Nash plans to have a workspace where people can bring artifacts for identification, like “Antiques Roadshow” without the valuations.

“We aren’t going to put monetary values on objects,” Nash said, laughing. “But just to help people understand what they are finding, but also to work with them to document sites, and understand why these things need to be protected.”

The non-profit will host a lab where artifacts can be cleaned and photographed, and the center will have space for items to be archived for the region. 

Bringing the community into the process of archeological research is important to Nash, both to preserve historic sites and make the public aware of the history all around them. 

“My great concern is that people don’t understand how important these places are, how important these sites are,” Nash said. “We are constantly dealing with their loss. When that happens it’s like burning the pages in a library book.” 

Nash wants to engage community members in other ways by having people bring maps, ask questions, tell their stories and work together to get sites documented to bring a greater understanding to the Valley and its history. 

“I was trained very much in this environmental tradition to understand the relationship between human beings how our societies change, and how we are tied to the environment,” Nash said.  “Living in the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge, we are in a place of great biodiversity and great ecological richness.”

That wealth of history contained in artifacts can reveal so much, she said.  

“The stories of people who have been here — the Native Americans who were here for 13,000 years, the Europeans who show up, the settlers who come, the Africans who were forced with them,” Nash said. “You just get all of these really important stories about what it means to live in a place like this and how that helps us understand how we got to where we are.” 

Part of the outreach vision includes working with public schools, as well as colleges and universities to build research projects. 

One project Nash wants tackle is the documentation of Native American burial grounds in the Valley. Once prominent in the landscape, the burial mounds were massive features and important parts of Native communities. Many were plowed down, and Nash is working to document the remaining sacred spaces. 

Overlooked Native American villages, medicinal spring sites and pottery kilns are part of pages-long list of sites Nash wants to research. She also wants to teach survey work, documentation and the scientific process as part of her citizen science initiatives and teach people proper archeological techniques and approaches. 

For Nash, the work that has still not been done can be overwhelming, and there are many questions left to be answered.

“There are so many myths about Native Americans and Native American culture in the Valley,” she said. 

For instance, one such myth was that the Valley was empty when Europeans arrived. 

“Our direct ancestors benefitted from that story, and it’s not true,” Nash said. “Why are there not established Native American communities in the Valley today? What happened? That question has been driving a lot of the work that I’ve been doing in the last few years.”

Documenting Native American sites — even the smallest ones — can build a greater understanding of who lived here, Nash said.

“Once you have gathered that data, you can’t argue with the fact that there were thousands of Native American sites in the Shenandoah Valley, and yet there are no established communities today,” Nash said. “That should, we hope, open people’s minds to say, ‘Well, what happened?’”

Another area in which local archeology can help is bringing to the fore Black history, which has often been overlooked in the Valley. 

“So many myths about there not being enslaved people here, and there not being established African American communities, when very clearly there were, and the archeology tells us of that story,” Nash said.

And Nash says that another mission of the center is to partner with descendant communities, not only to carry out the research, but in designing the research, and asking the questions. 

“There are the ones whose identities are tied to these places,” Nash said. “What are the things that they want to know?”

She says that while the emotional labor of discovering history that challenges what we believe to be true is hard work, a more complete history of who lived before us is important to how we live now. 

“I’ve always thought of archeology as a means to social justice,” Nash said. “I feel like we have the opportunity through archeology to make people visible and make their stories visible.” 

The center will hold an official open house later this fall. 

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