Scientific storytelling: Eustis archaeologists preserve 'American experience'

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Katie Gar Ward
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
To many who drive the roads of Fort Eustis on a daily basis, the brick house standing atop the hill where Taylor Avenue meets Harrison Road looks like any other old building.

Known as the Matthew Jones House, it is in reality the oldest building owned by the Department of Defense in the United States, and was converted into an architectural museum in 1995.

To help tell the story of the Jones House and other archaeological sites on Fort Eustis, the 733rd Civil Engineer Division environmental element archaeologists preserve the history through education, restoration and community outreach.

Fort Eustis' first staff archaeologist was hired in 2004. Over the years, the program has grown into a team whose primary mission is to ensure the post remains compliant with cultural resource laws, said Dr. Christopher McDaid, 733rd CED installation archaeologist.

"We evaluate [integrity] of historical sites on the post. If buildings need renovation or if new construction is required, we determine whether construction actions will impact the archaeological site," said McDaid, a Bryn Mawr, Pa. native. "We try to work with agencies as early as possible to avoid any delays in construction."

While preservation is their primary focus for the Cultural Resource Program, McDaid said education through tours is an equally important facet of the archaeologists' mission, and most tours begin at the Matthew Jones House.

The Jones House was built in 1700 and originally stood as a wooden structure with two rooms and a loft. Throughout the years, it was remodeled and expanded, and passed down before the land was purchased by the U.S. government in 1918 during World War I, where the house was converted into officer housing. After the war's end, the house was left empty and boarded until 1995.

Now, the house serves as a museum, displaying artifacts found on Mulberry Island, the land that is now Fort Eustis. The artifacts include hunting and gathering tools and iron cookware ranging from 8000 B.C. to AD 1900.

The Matthew Jones House is one of 234 archaeological sites on Fort Eustis, including the post's largest Civil War field fortification, Fort Crafford, and two Confederate family cemeteries.

To further educate the post and community on these sites, Fort Eustis' Cultural Resources Management program includes restoration projects for Earth Day in April and an open house in October in observance of Archaeology Month.

"We're charged to take care of these places for the American people," said McDaid. "It's more than getting the areas that were once closed down back open - we work to preserve them so the military members, their families and the community can experience these places."

McDaid and the archaeology team have taken great strides to work with the community through its internship program with Christopher Newport University's Public History department.

While this is the first year Fort Eustis and CNU have partnered in this capacity, the internship program itself has continually expanded over many years in order to provide mutual benefit to students and the community, said Dr. Sheri Shuck-Hall, CNU Public History Program director.

"The internship program developed out of the need to provide hands-on learning for students interested in pursuing public history," said Shuck-Hall. "History majors learn outside the classroom by not only understanding how history can be practically applied, but also by making an impact on how the public understands our nation's history."

Students help identify previously-excavated artifacts from 13 Fort Eustis sites and reanalyze them according to new discoveries from sites in close proximity to Jamestown. Gaining that practical exposure allows interns to learn proper lab and analysis techniques, said Shuck-Hall.

"The Department of History has a unique opportunity to serve Hampton Roads' public history agencies by placing our history [students] in internships," said Shuck-Hall. "[Fort Eustis] assists in the educational process of history interns by providing a significant learning experience, while [at the same time] serving the larger interests of the Tidewater region."

Although Fort Eustis' archaeological mission is a relatively-new aspect of the post's history, it is but one chapter in a story that has spanned millennia, said McDaid.

"People have lived [on Fort Eustis] for 12,000 years," said McDaid. "[Preserving these sites] reminds everyone that American history is a long-running story, and we are part of a continuum of the American experience."