Most archaeologists can only dream of having a good laboratory in which to work.
So, no wonder that Virginia’s Germanna Foundation celebrated last week as it opened one of the region’s few such facilities, the Hitt Archaeology Center in eastern Orange County.
More than 100 guests from across the area joined foundation officials to celebrate the moment and see the laboratory building beside the foundation’s Germanna Visitor Center on State Route 3.
“This building allows us to expand and tell a fuller story of the peoples who populated this land in the early part of the 18th century,” the foundation’s executive director, Tim Sutphin, told the crowd. “Not just the German-speaking peoples, but the British who built and oversaw Fort Germanna, the enslaved that provided the labor once the Germans had moved west and, of course, the native population that were already here on the Germanna peninsula.”
The foundation’s Locust Grove properties were home to two German colonies of 1714 and 1717 on what was then the mid-Atlantic’s western frontier, as well as the center of operations for Virginia colonial governor Alexander Spotswood’s personal holdings of 80,000 acres.
The new center will house the nonprofit foundation’s researchers, summer field-school students and archaeological collection assembled over decades from excavations at Spotswood’s nearby “Enchanted Castle” mansion and other sites.
Construction of the center fulfills an old hope of researchers at Germanna, where archaeology has been occurring—off and on—for more than 50 years.
The building speaks to the nonprofit’s goal of building a long-term program to explore the below-ground resources of its four historic properties, which include a palisaded, five-sided Colonial fort where the first German settlers built their homes, Spotswood’s palatial stone-and-brick mansion, and Spotsylvania County’s original courthouse village.
To do that, the foundation needed a spacious, indoor, climate-controlled place in which archaeologists could catalog, clean and analyze the historic sites’ artifacts. The researchers’ outdoor excavations excite people’s imagination, but it’s their time-consuming lab work that makes sense of what they find, and preserves it for future comparison and study.
Foundation President J. Marc Wheat, speaking for the nonprofit’s board of trustees, called the occasion “one of the most important days in the life of the foundation since its founding on March 14, 1956.”
Wheat welcomed a large group of guests to Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Hitt Center.
Those attending included state Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, and officials from the National Park Service, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, governing boards of Culpeper, Orange and Spotsylvania counties, the Culpeper Town Council, Museum of Culpeper History, Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield, Orange County Chamber of Commerce, James Madison’s Montpelier, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Stratford Hall, Fredericksburg Area Museum, Orange County Tourism, American Battlefield Trust, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, Fairfield Foundation, Menokin, Gunston Hall, Society of the Cincinnati, George Washington Foundation, University of Mary Washington, Virginia Commonwealth University and Germanna Community College.
Wheat briefly discussed the national significance of what Germanna settlers and their kin have accomplished.
“The colonists who settled here on the frontier in two main groups in 1714 and 1717, and the relatives who came later to settle further west, left a legacy of confidence toward the future and a joy of exploration that is part of the American DNA,” he said. “Fifty years ago this year, one of those Germanna descendants, Buzz Aldrin, stepped foot on the moon.”
Some 2 million Americans are descended from those early German settlers, it is estimated.
Dr. Eric Larsen, the foundation’s director of archaeology, called the center “an invaluable tool” for housing the essential, if often overlooked, tasks of his science, as well as educating students and the public about archaeology and history.
“The first half of the 18th century is a very important moment in Virginia’s and our national history, but it has been little studied,” Larsen said. “Germanna is a remarkable place to contemplate and share this particular moment from our past.”
He said he and his colleagues look forward to “doing the hard work” of more fully revealing the story of Germanna’s “intersecting migrations” of American Indians, English settlers, German immigrants and enslaved African Americans.
Wheat and Sutphin thanked Virginia residents Russell and Joan Hitt, the center’s namesake, for their generous help in building the facility and for “having faith in the future” of the foundation.
Wheat also expressed gratitude to Dr. Janet Gullickson, president of Germanna Community College, and the college’s entire board for coming to witness the event.
Other speakers included foundation trustee Raymond “Skip” Poole, who oversaw creation of a document-rich time capsule entombed within the center, and Robert Jolley, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ Northern Region Preservation Office in Stephens City.
“I am pretty awestruck at how things have evolved at this historic-site complex,” Jolley said of Germanna’s holdings. “What’s been going on here is pretty remarkable from a historic preservation standpoint. It’s ideal.”
Afterward, college officials expressed their appreciation of the Germanna colonies’ descendants’ gift of 100 acres to found the college 49 years ago. The college’s first campus opened at Locust Grove in 1970.
For the past couple of years, the college’s Locust Grove Campus loaned classroom space to the foundation for a makeshift archaeology laboratory.
“We were happy to provide temporary lab space over the last several years in anticipation of the opening of the Hitt Archeology Center,” said Bruce Davis, the college president’s special assistant for institutional advancement.
“The Germanna historical foundation is a true American asset, not just a German one,” Davis told the college board as it met on its Orange County campus after the Hitt Center ceremony.
The foundation broke ground on the center last October.
The 3,000-square-foot, metal-roofed building includes office space for operations staff, a kitchenette and break room, a wet-sink area to wash artifacts, and a large, multipurpose room that can house field-school work during the summer, as well as public programs.
Another large room, with plenty of shelving, will be devoted to housing artifacts.
World-renowned archaeologist William Kelso has said “the Fort Germanna/ Enchanted Castle site ranks among the most significant historical archaeological sites certainly in Virginia and arguably in the nation.”
Kelso, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for having rediscovered English colonists’ fort at Jamestown, has also investigated Carter’s Grove, Monticello and Poplar Forest. Recently, he joined the Germanna Foundation’s board.
The Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies in Virginia Inc. was chartered in 1956 to preserve the heritage of the earliest organized settlements of Germans in Colonial Virginia. Its mission is to tell America’s story through archaeological, historical and genealogical research and interpretation.
Since 2016, the Germanna archaeology program has been searching for the 1714 site of Fort Germanna, the wood-spike enclosure the settlers built to protect themselves from Indian attack.