Each year, a million people from around the world visit Mount Vernon, Virginia, to explore the history of the home of first U.S. president, George Washington. Yet few visitors have the opportunity to experience Washington’s historic plantation the way a handful of students will this summer: exploring the grounds in a very literal way as part of an archeological and preservation project, unearthing parts of the estate that haven’t been touched since the 1700s. The project is the Mount Vernon / University of Maryland Field School in Historic Preservation, a unique, collaborative summer experience that trades the classroom for an active archeological site, teaching crucial methods of archeology, architecture and historic preservation. Established last summer as a partnership between Mount Vernon and UMD’s Historic Preservation program, the school’s aim is to uncover the history of and give narrative to lesser-known areas of Washington’s historic home, while offering a valuable experience to students and professionals in the preservation field.
Although Mount Vernon has held field schools in the past, the partnership with UMD’s Preservation Program was created to address a lack of hands-on opportunities in the region for budding and professional historians, preservationists and archeologists.
“We noticed in the past three years that there weren’t many field school opportunities in the area, so we wanted to fill that niche,” says Eleanor Breen, Deputy Director of Archeology for George Washington’s Mount Vernon. “What is unique about Mount Vernon’s field school is that it doesn’t just teach archeology, but all aspects of preservation. Our goal is to create a preservation lab where people from all over the country feel they can come to study and further their craft.”
A highlight of the program is the extensive fieldwork conducted on Washington’s Mansion House Farm. This year, excavations will focus on a previously existing kitchen and dairy, which Washington tore down around 1775 as part of the home’s renovation. Under the guidance of UMD research associates and Mount Vernon preservation staff, students will painstakingly uncover new pieces of the home’s history through artifact excavation and site documentation, piecing together a greater story that will eventually be shared with the public. Their work is an integral part of preserving the history of America’s most iconic plantation.
Combined with group discussions, field trips and readings, the program provides a comprehensive study of three prominent themes of historic house museums: the evolution of the plantation landscape, African American History and public interpretation.
“The students’ work helps tell the story about a lesser-known time during Mt. Vernon, prior to the Revolutionary War,” explains Breen. “Part of that is telling the story of these early out buildings, the people who worked and lived in them, but part of it is about showing the archeological and preservation process at work.”
The unparalleled experience of working on such a historically prominent site attracted students from prominent universities across the country for the school’s inaugural year last summer. Three graduate students and seven undergraduate students participated in the program in 2013, spurring one undergraduate student to apply to UMD’s graduate program in historic preservation.
“The field school goes beyond providing a great experience our students. It sets our program apart,” explains Linebaugh. “The opportunity to work in Mount Vernon as a student of history, archeology or architecture is a stand out experience.”
This year’s school will run May 27- July 3, 2014, and is open to fulltime undergraduate and graduate students from any discipline. Applications are currently being accepted; deadline for applications is March 31st. Find more information about credits, requirements and applying here.