Erik Arneson is an archaeology volunteer who has come on three of Montpelier’s Archaeology Expedition Programs. In this post, he tells us about his history with the program, and the exciting discovery he made this spring while excavating alongside our staff.
The seminal railroad track quest in the Stephen King movie “Stand by Me” nearly encapsulates my entire childhood. Daily walks with best pals along the inactive tracks of the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad were a summer ritual in my pre-teen years outside of historic Annapolis, Md. If I wasn’t fishing or crabbing on Chase Creek, I was exploring somewhere in the woods or along the tracks.
Searches for “treasure” — from easy-to-pull railroad spikes to cream-top Annapolis Dairy and McCormick spice bottles to Buffalo nickels to chunks of shiny coal — lead to my early interest in archaeology.
When I was about 12, I received a metal detector for Christmas. Little more than a toy that barely located quarters hidden under a shag rug, I fancied it a tool of the trade, feeding my desire to continue my exploration.
As with too many things from those years, the pursuit of discovery ended up buried beneath layers of life. Memories of a simpler time and even simpler joys faded.
However, in the spring of 2016, that childhood interest pushed itself to the surface, and I began searching the Internet for opportunities to volunteer at an actual archaeological site. Originally thinking grandly of the pyramids of Egypt or South American rain forests, I came across the opportunity to participate in an Excavation Expedition at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison in the town of Orange, Va. With family history in Orange and nearby Gordonsville, Va., and my parents living just a short drive away, outside of Staunton, Va., I decided it might be an interesting and relatively simple way to get started. I signed up for a week’s expedition.
From day one, I was hooked.
The stunning beauty of Montpelier and its grounds aside, it was the Montpelier Archaeology team that hooked me. As I approached Arlington House, the antebellum plantation house serving as home for the Montpelier archaeology interns and expeditioners, I knew I had picked the right place.
It’s nothing fancy. This wasn’t going to be a Disney vacation. This was going to be work.
It was late in the day, and the interns, who had just cleaned up from a day at the site, were preparing a welcome meal for the arriving expeditioners — there were maybe a half dozen of us, all there for different reasons.
By the end of the meal, we felt like we were part of the Montpelier team. A feeling that means the world to me, and drives my desire to get things done.
My first two Excavation Expeditions – the South Yard and the Grove – were loaded with artifacts. You simply could not draw your trowel across hardened soil without coming across pieces of ceramic or glass, animal bones, nails, or other simple reminders that you were working in a place where daily human activity had taken place for years. At the end of the day, our sample bags were overflowing and our backs were tired (OK, my back was tired).
The work felt meaningful, especially upon returning to the site in later months and years, seeing ever-evolving exhibits take shape. Exhibits and additions that will tell a story for generations to come. Walking through “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibit is haunting and life-changing. Feeling even a small part of this ongoing Montpelier archeology process is incredibly rewarding.
Regretfully missing a dig in 2018, I returned a few weeks ago as the first three-day expeditioner under a new experimental Dig Montpelier program. I was well aware the area I would be working in – the Pine Alley between Montpelier and the Temple – would not offer the abundance of artifacts I had helped uncover in 2016 and 2017. In addition, the team seemed concerned that the relative dearth of artifacts might dampen my enthusiasm. It didn’t.
Sometimes it’s about quality over quantity.
On my second day of work with the team of Myles Sullivan, Chris Pasch and Caitlyn-Jean Ward, I was digging under winding roots of an old cypress tree, when a circular piece of glass caught my eye. Wiping it clean with my fingers, the embossed type read “I.P. Clarke’s” across the top, and the word “Patent” across the bottom, with what I would later learn was the British royal coat of arms, with the lion and the unicorn, in the middle.
The team gathered and the guessing game began – a paste gem from a button? … part of a cufflink? … the top of a bottle cap? … was it Madison era? From off-site, speculation leaned toward a decorative fob from a pocket watch.
Whatever it was, there was a real thrill in finding something that generated so much curiosity and interest from the team. The countless pigs’ teeth and nails from previous years all helped tell the story of Montpelier, but this little glass artifact was creating a bit of a buzz.
Alone in my hotel room after the day’s work, I decided to play around with finding the answer to the mystery. My first outreach was to my father-in-law, Judge Richard Linn, who spent many years as a patent attorney. The word “Patent” on the gem made it a logical first step.
His response, however, lead me in a very different direction, as he explained the British use of the word is different from its American reference. So, there wasn’t necessarily a patent as I knew it associated with the artifact.
So, instead of adding terms to my search, I started simplifying the approach, typing only “I.P. Clarke” into a Google search. One of the unlikely results – a British thread company.
I added the word “thread” to the search and changed the search criteria to Images, and began scrolling screen after screen through my iPhone. After what seemed like dozens of screens, there it was … sitting on top of a spool of thread from someone’s Pinterest “77 Best Sewing Bobbins and Spools” post.
A little dejected that the “Bobbin Topper” didn’t reach quite far enough back to be Madison era, I was still excited to have possibly identified the find.
I shared the image with the Montpelier team via Facebook, with a mixture of pride and uncertainty.
After all, I’m just the grown-up version of that kid digging for things along the railroad tracks. The joy in the hunt, the excitement in the find and the pride in finding the answer to “What is it?” all still deliver a passion for archeology – even if it’s only for a few days every year.
To the team at Montpelier, led by Matt Reeves, Terry Brock and Mary Minkoff, thank you for letting me be that kid again! I’ll see you soon (proudly wearing my new green badge!).
Archaeology Volunteer and Expeditioner
Erik Arneson, currently VP of Media Relations for FOX Sports, is a 30-year veteran of the sports journalism/media relations industry, having worked for nearly a decade at USA Today as a writer and page designer before transitioning to media relations in 1999. As part of the FOX Sports media relations team since 2002, Arneson has worked across multiple sports properties, including the NFL Super Bowl, MLB All-Star Game, MLB World Series and 18 Daytona 500s. An award-winning author and journalist, Arneson also serves as an adjunct professor at Belmont Abbey College, where he teaches courses in Public Relations/Media and Social Media. He has attended three Montpelier Archaeology Expeditions.