Ongoing archaeology and excavation work in New London turns up more insights to eras past

FOREST — Virginia is steeped in history, going back far earlier than the formation of the United States. Virginia also is home to towns and cities pre-dating the American Revolution. New London, founded in 1754, is one such 18th-century locale.

Ongoing research and archaeology work by Liberty University students and staff at various historic sites have turned up more details into 18th-century life, the Victorian era, and indigenous peoples in New London and immediately surrounding areas.

Students; staff from archaeology, history, and related departments; and a variety of partners from other places have been continuously excavating and researching to study and educate on what life was like for residents of the area in its infancy. Most recently, new excavations and research have located a prosperous store and two taverns dating to the 18th century. Plans for Mead’s Tavern were also announced this year, specifically plans to develop a museum wing that will interpret the history of New London.

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Artifacts from the land’s earliest, indigenous people have been found along with colonial and Victorian-era artifacts in the grounds of New London, Randy Lichtenberger of Hurt & Proffitt said. One of the most interesting finds from before Native Americans had contact with European colonists was a spearpoint turned into a knife, discovered in the yard of today’s historic Bedford Alum Springs Hotel.

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Director of Cultural Resources, Randy Lichtenberger, stands by the Continental Arsenal in New London on Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022.

New London in its heyday was an important place for colonists. It was a westernmost stop before entering wilderness areas, and travelers stocked up for long journeys at the stores there, according to Donna Davis Donald, director of public history initiatives at Liberty University. 

Mead’s Tavern, built in 1763, is one of the oldest standing structures in Central Virginia and is one of the sites with the most progress so far after LU acquired it in 2015. Last year, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

Part of the original brick exterior on Mead’s Tavern is visible thanks to excavation of a later addition to the building. Oak wood paneling inside, with notches in the structural beams here and there, originally was painted a dark hunter green, a rich pigment common to the era.

Mead’s Tavern was hardly the only tavern in the area, but its location next to the courthouse at the time, plus the fact it was a two-story establishment, made it notable and strategically placed for business. People could gather to get up on the latest gossip, court drama, enjoy music and dancing, play cards and other games — dice have been found on site — and have a pint.

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Director of Public History Initiatives, Donna Donald, and Director of Cultural Resources, Randy Lichtenberger, outside of Mead’s Tavern in New London on Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022.

“Just thinking about the impacts that this small area that doesn’t really have a town anymore can still have that piece of national history is pretty cool,” said Jane Deane, who is working on her master’s in history at LU. “Bringing history back, and pulling together a bunch of communities, but also figuring out connections it had to colonial history as a whole.”

Deane has been researching New London for several years now and is most heavily involved with Mead’s Tavern.

The building was converted into a girls’ school in the early 1800s.

Girls whose families could afford the education would learn not only embroidery, drawing, and traditional “womanly arts,” but also philosophy; Greek and Latin; geography; and other academic subjects more standard to boys’ education, Donald said.

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Director of Public History Initiatives, Donna Donald, stands inside of Mead’s Tavern in New London on Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022.

The basement of Mead’s Tavern has what is believed to be the oldest intact brick wall in Virginia west of Richmond, according to Donald and Lichtenberger. Lichtenberger said they believe this basement functioned as living quarters, among its uses, perhaps for hired or enslaved workers at the tavern.

“We found tens of thousands of 18th-century artifacts all across the floor down there,” Lichtenberger said. “A lot of really interesting personal items. Lots of pins and buttons; there was costume jewelry, sewing needles. There was part of an ivory-carved needle case. A lot of glassware and ceramics, which you would expect to find from that period.”

The site was stabilized and the wall secured, and with this milestone accomplished, LU hired a team of preservationists and designers to develop a restoration plan for the tavern. The goal is to rehabilitate the west wing into a museum space that will help interpret New London as a whole, and the Mead’s Tavern site itself. Other parts of the building are envisioned to include a history lab, classroom, and potential event area.

Part of the building will remain untouched so students can continue studying historic building methods, and visitors will also get to see how the tavern was constructed in the late 1700s.

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Director of Cultural Resources, Randy Lichtenberger, looks inside of Mead’s Tavern in New London on Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022.

At least three outbuildings — a kitchen, a smokehouse, and a wash house — were identified on old maps of the Mead’s Tavern property, but have yet to be formally identified and excavated.

Ongoing excavations on the addition to Mead’s Tavern have turned up coins from the 1800s, and myriad Victorian-era artifacts — many of them toys. Doll parts and a wooden building block featuring the letter “L” are among the finds of that period, in addition to a newer chimney built to replace an old one.

“It’s kind of a microcosm of New London history,” Donald said. “The building itself represents the different periods that are represented by the history here, and all very much layered one on top of the other, dependent on one another, and the story is complex.”

At least two more 18th-century taverns and a store have been identified by those working at the Bedford Alum Springs Hotel site, also owned by LU.

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Director of Public History Initiatives, Donna Donald, and Director of Cultural Resources, Randy Lichtenberger, stands by photos of the Continental Arsenal at the Bedford Alum Springs Hotel on Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022.

The Long Ordinary, one of the identified taverns, was frequented by Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. President and author of the Declaration of Independence who came to town when overseeing development of, and later lived in, his Poplar Forest plantation. Jefferson was a meticulous record-keeper, and one of his receipt books has records of the “entertainment” he received at The Long Ordinary when he was in town.

The store discovered on site is the next focus for excavation and research. Called John Hook’s Store for its owner, a successful Scottish merchant of the Revolutionary era, an indentation in the ground indicates the footprint of the building. The site was ultimately found through deed records and insurance plats dating back to the 1700s, Lichtenberger said. One corner of the store site was dug into as something of a preview, and the excavation reached down to a flagstone floor.

Hook was a character, Donald and Lichtenberger said. When most loyalists fled New London during or after the American Revolution, Hook stayed put. He did extremely well as a businessman, too; Donald said Hook was one of the wealthiest merchants in all the colonies at the time.

The hope for John Hook’s Store, Donald said, is to keep moving forward with excavation work, and perhaps set up interpretive signage outlining where the store was, who its owner was, and what patrons could find there. However, concrete plans and funding sources have not yet been established. For now, there are only dreams.

Bedford Alum Springs Hotel was named so for its location near mineral springs that drew visitors from near and far. The mineral springs were said to have healing, therapeutic properties, and many came hoping for revitalization and better health.

Significantly, on the hotel’s property was one of only five arsenals the Continental Army had during the American Revolution. Ammunition, muskets, and other small arms were stored there, Lichtenberger said. The building no longer stands — stone stairs leading to the basement have been uncovered in a dig — but in the early 1900s when it still remained, the structure functioned as a community center and dance hall, according to documents.

The arsenal is of particular interest to Stephanie Wright, a graduate student at LU pursuing her master’s in history. Wright’s focus is military history and her current goal is to go into museum work. She has worked at New London sites for five years now.

“New London was kind of forgotten, really, for decades,” Wright said. “I think it just helps bring back something that had been forgotten, and hopefully that helps the people of the community also realize that their town was a pivotal moment in both the American Revolution, and into the settling beyond the Appalachian Mountains.”

The work on these historic sites represents an interdisciplinary collaborative effort amongst multiple university departments, Donald said. Archaeology and history students are involved, of course, but so are students in chemistry, botany, and other departments. The projects are multi-faceted, requiring many different talents and specialties to make them successful.

Liberty University purchasing these historic New London properties gives them a chance to preserve them, Donald said. It also opens opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience in their respective fields, whether digging in the dirt for excavations or doing more paperwork research. They look forward to continued studies.

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