Excavations Aim to Unearth Campus Origins

Anthropology students will soon excavate a site near Church of the Holy Spirit in the search for artifacts from one of the earliest buildings at Kenyon.


Two anthropology professors hope an archaeological excavation on campus this semester will unearth important details from Kenyon’s distant past.

The possibilities of what they and their students might find near the Church of the Holy Spirit include everything but the kitchen sink. Actually, maybe that, too, since the site is believed to be the location of the college’s first dining hall about 200 years ago. 

“We’re hoping that this will tell us a lot about what daily life was like, what student life was like, what people were eating,” said Claire Novotny, associate professor of anthropology. “It just seems like a pretty rich spot for learning about what life was like at the very beginning of the College.”

She and Tómas Gallareta Cervera, assistant professor of anthropology and Latino/a Studies, expect to begin the dig on Friday, Sept. 8, as part of an archaeological methods course (Anthropology 491).

Every Friday through the end of October, about a dozen students will work on excavating the lawn in front of the church, which will be set off by fencing. They will use picks and shovels to remove the topsoil and then sift through it with wire screens to search for artifacts.

As an educational tool, the hands-on experience will be incredibly valuable, Gallareta said.

“It’s an opportunity for students as they can learn how knowledge is created,” he said. 

Some facts are known about Kenyon’s early days, but this is believed to be the first large-scale, documented excavation at the College, which was founded by Episcopal Bishop Philander Chase in Worthington, Ohio, in 1824, and moved to Gambier four years later. 

Chase originally lived with his son in a cabin close to where Old Kenyon stands today but soon moved closer to a well that was located just north of where the Middle Path Gates stand now, according to the writings of Rev. George Smythe, who chronicled Kenyon’s early days and served on the faculty from 1902-1920. Other structures were built nearby, in front of where the Church of the Holy Spirit now stands.

One of these is believed to be the old dining hall, whose probable foundations — about 45 feet long by 18 feet wide and located about 20 inches beneath the surface — were first identified after the pandemic struck. That’s when Novotny and Gallareta, experts in Mayan archaeology, were unable to travel abroad for research and looked to create student learning opportunities closer to home.  

Molly Keen ’21 began conducting archival research to identify possible excavation sites as a student, and Jarrod Burks, an archaeologist with Ohio Valley Archaeology, Inc., was hired to use ground-penetrating radar (GPR), a method for creating subsurface images that can show the contrast between underground structures and surrounding soil.

“Based on the archival maps and then the GPR, it looks like there’s the foundations of probably the first dining hall,” Novotny said. “The cabins don’t seem to be there, but perhaps a cellar or something like that is still around.”

Isolated artifacts that have been recovered over the years seem to support this conclusion. 

“There’s a big oak tree there in front of the chapel, and sometimes a piece of brick and ceramic sherds would get kind of pushed to the surface by the roots,” Novotny explained. “We had some interesting ceramic fragments that we did some research on.”

Retired College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73 said he’s excited about what other artifacts the project may dig up. Such items provide a tactile connection between current students, staff and faculty and the past, he said.

And while diaries provide a strong foundation of knowledge about the College’s early years — when a dozen or so students were living in log structures — archaeological work can help firm up details of the historical record, including the actual location of the first campus buildings, he said.

“We have observed throughout the years that hands-on learning and experiential learning really does have an impact on students.”

Professor Tómas Gallareta Cervera

“I think it’s wonderful,” Stamp said. “Quite a bit of what we know about those early years is more surmise than it is actual facts that we’re building on. We know that's where they were, large-scale, but not exactly.”

The project aligned perfectly with increased student interest in learning methodology, something that couldn’t be accommodated on a large scale with international trips for research. So Novotny and Gallareta were delighted to create a new opportunity on campus. 

“We have observed throughout the years that hands-on learning and experiential learning really does have an impact on students,” Gallareta said. 

The new class will use the College’s history as a case study for learning about different archaeological data collection methods and laboratory analysis. But more than that, Gallareta said, students will benefit from seeing how their discoveries are interpreted and how others react to them.

Funding for equipment for the excavation came, in part, from a Kenyon Faculty Teaching Grant through the Provost’s office.

The hope, though, is that it won’t just be anthropology students who benefit from — and take part in — the work. Students at-large and members of the public may be able to get involved by volunteering to work at the site for a few hours on an upcoming, yet-to-be-determined weekend. 

By the end of October, Novotny and Gallareta said they expect the excavation to wrap up. But it might be just the beginning of archaeological explorations on campus.

“We’re going to do some more GPR on the other side of Middle Path where we know there was student housing,” Novotny said. “So there is archaeology that could be done on campus in the future.”