It's not your typical dig. Instead of the quiet of dirt-flinging shovels and rakes grazing across the soil, there's the roar of trains passing through Main Street Station and the buzz of traffic on Interstate 95. Laird and a team of four dig deep in their 9-foot trenches, clinging to the hope that they'll find another clue. The clock is ticking. Laird, senior researcher for the James River Institute for Archaeology, which is conducting the preliminary excavation, has a few more days to determine if the site will produce enough history to keep digging.
In an interview with Style, Laird discusses what the slave jail excavation has revealed so far and what lies ahead.
Style:How did you find out where the Lumpkin's slave jail was?
Laird: There are no maps that say "Here's Lumpkin's house." Basically we had to go back and do the documentary research first. I researched all the land deeds for Robert Lumpkin and looked at city records. We figured out what lots Lumpkin owned looking at the deeds. We had a map from 1835 that showed the entire city of Richmond and where all the lots were located, they were all numbered.
He basically had a whole complex here and lived on the site. He had a boarding house and a kitchen, and then the slave jail. His business was buying people's excess slaves throughout Virginia. At that time the economy of Virginia had changed. So what was happening is they amassed all these slaves under the tobacco economy and then tobacco kind of bottomed out, and they were just farming and didn't need so many people. but the slave population was still growing.
Guys like Lumpkin [would] purchase people's surplus slaves and sell them to plantation owners from the deep South. The exact opposite was happening there; the cotton economy was just starting to pick up and they needed a ton of labor.
About how many slaves were moved around like this?
I've heard figures up to 300,000 to 350,000 African-Americans throughout the first half of the 19th century were moved out of Virginia into the deeper South states. So he was one of the many slave brokers or slave dealers. In fact, most of them were centered here in Shockoe Bottom, some even on the same street. I've seen reference to at least one or two other slave dealers [who] operated on Lumpkin's alley.
What have you found so far? What are you hoping to find?
The goal was to see if we could find any intact remains of Lumpkin's jail or the complex. We knew that was a really tall order, kind of a needle in a haystack, so we were also interested to learn is there even an intact level [of soil] from that time period that has survived.
This site is so complex because after the Lumpkin period all the buildings were demolished, and then a few years later, they built an ironworks on this site, and that was a large factory that was producing iron and working materials. By about 1900, 1905 it shut down and was demolished, and then the Seaboard Railroad the freight depot behind us here [see photo] it used to be twice as long as it is now, [and] it actually extended all the way across the site, too. The rubble that remains from that is here, too. [Laird points down at one of the excavation holes at a concrete slab, built around 1909 for Seaboard, which is still intact.]
Lumpkin's jail stood about 150 years ago. How far down to you have to dig?
Well, it depends on where you are looking. Where we are normally working whether in the woods or a field it's probably about a foot down. Here in the city, because we've had so much activity over the years and so many different buildings on the site, it's just built up over time and we're about 8 or 9 feet deep here, which is, from what I understand, not that unusual.
Have you found any remains of the Lumpkin complex?
Well so far as we've worked our way down, we've seen evidence of that Seaboard building [and] that layer that was clearly the remainder of the Ironworks. Over the last day or two, we've just gotten down to the layer below the Ironworks that we think relates to the great time period we're looking for, around the Civil War era. So we're not ready to send up the signal flares saying we've absolutely found anything. We need to get in here and do a lot more testing by hand, which is what you would normally think of as archeology. It's really from those dateable artifacts that we find in the soil that we are able to determine what time period we're looking at.
What have you found out about the Lumpkin complex?
We know that the slave jail was a two-story brick building. That was good because brick buildings, especially two-story brick buildings, are going to have a pretty solid foundation, typically to support the weight. So we were thinking in the best-case scenario we would actually find maybe a remnant of that brick foundation from the building. This is a big area to test in. There are a ton of utilities that we have to avoid, and then we've got features like [Seaboard's] concrete footing that we can't move.
So yeah it would be wonderful like a eureka moment if we could find that foundation. But we were also interested to see is there even any potential for finding the layer underneath everything that dates to that time period? It's great to find the buildings themselves, but as archaeologists, we're also interested in learning about the people who lived there. One of the ways we do that is by analyzing the things they tossed away, and often they didn't really have regular garbage so a lot of what they trashed was buried on the property or buried naturally.
What's in the future for the dig?
This is just the first phase, and that's all that's really been planned for now. Now there's been some talk about the possibility that if we find any intact layers or parts of the jail building itself, then there might be an opportunity to raise more funds to do some more investigating. But this is just a week's worth. If we were going to come back, it would be probably many weeks, even months, of work and it could get more expensive. It's looking like at this point there is some potential, but we don't want to say absolutely. S
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.