Admissions Blog: Why I really dig our archaeology program

Posted on August 21, 2020 by Dana Poleski

Phoenix Brown ’20 Phoenix Brown ’20

By Phoenix Brown ’20
Archeology and studio art major

When looking at colleges, people will often ask you what your major is going to be. If you are unsure, they will reassure you and tell you that your interests are likely to change once you get to college. During my college search, one college counselor asked me this exact question. I think she expected me to answer with something a lot of people want to study, like business, English, or psychology. When I answered, “archaeology,” she seemed somewhat shocked and told me, “Oh. THAT won’t change.” And she was right.

I’ve been interested in the field of archaeology since I was three years old. Yes, three. I had something of an obsession with National Geographic and the Discovery Channel as a child. I remember getting in trouble for bringing a book about mummies to show-and-tell in Kindergarten. I was praised for my curiosity, but reprimanded for scaring the other children. So when beginning my college search, I knew I had to keep my eyes peeled for a good archaeology program. I went on every college visit my school hosted. I sat in with every admissions counselor that came to give us information. And I worked extensively with my school’s college counselor to find the right place for me. Unfortunately, even schools I absolutely loved were a no-go for me. This was because they didn’t offer an archaeology program. Some offered an anthropology program, in which I could receive a concentration in archaeology. That wasn’t good enough for me. I mean, what is a concentration anyway? To me, it felt like schools were trying to pull me in by offering ALMOST what I wanted. I wasn’t going to settle for almost.

I thought I’d found the perfect school when a small women’s college came and gave their presentation. They spoke about attending a women’s college, and had a pamphlet about all the advantages of attending a single-sex institution. For this school, I was ready to settle for that concentration in archaeology. But alas, their school didn’t even offer an anthropology degree. I was heartbroken. The representatives from that school were so nice and friendly, and it sounded like their campus culture was the exact fit for me so obviously it was disappointing. I set off again on my search, armed with the hope of finding a suitable women’s college.

I knew that finding a small women’s college that offered an archaeology major was going to be hard, and maybe even impossible. But I decided to go for it. My college counselor had introduced me to the College Board’s College Search tool. I could input all the filters I wanted, and it would spit out all the schools in the country that fit my criteria. I started out by looking for any schools with an archaeology program. However, many of them were Ivy League schools, and I knew I’d have a hard time getting in. So, out of curiosity, I made my filters a little more specific. I looked for small, women’s colleges with an archaeology major. I expected nothing to happen, but two schools popped up. One of them had a giant pink flower as their logo and was named Sweet Briar. I was instantly curious.

At my high school, we were supposed to apply to at least five colleges as part of our college readiness course. I did not do that. I applied to Sweet Briar early action, and heard back within a few weeks. I went into my college counselor’s office a few days before the deadline to have all our applications in. I asked her, “Do I HAVE to apply anywhere else? I already got accepted to my top choice.” She asked me if I was even remotely considering going to a school other than Sweet Briar. I said no, so she told me not to waste my time. I was the first student in my graduating class to have made my decision about where I was going to college.

At the time of my admission, Sweet Briar was one of two women’s colleges in the country to offer an archaeology major. I think that makes us quite special. While Sweet Briar is a small school, our archaeology program is amazing. This is due, in part, to our location. Our campus is rich with historic buildings and sits on the site of a former plantation. The land holds tremendous opportunity for student research projects. We have two known cemeteries on campus: one for the family that owned Sweet Briar Plantation and one for their enslaved workers. We believe that other cemeteries likely exist, forgotten amongst our 2,840 acres of land. These cemetery sites have inspired research from both students and faculty. Our former dean of academics, Lynn Rainville, has written several books on the history and archaeology of Sweet Briar. These books form the basis for much of the research I did while I was a student. However, there is still much more research that can (and should) be done. I hope that Sweet Briar can continue to inspire future archaeologists to study the archaeology of slavery. 

Sweet Briar also possesses a collection of archaeological artifacts from around the world. Students are able to examine these artifacts for their research. As part of our remote learning program during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Erin Pitt, assistant professor of archaeology and ancient studies, hosted an Instagram Live event where she went over some of the pieces from our collection. We also have a dedicated archaeology lab. Students are currently updating and relocating the lab as part of their independent research. This is an ongoing project and an opportunity for students to do hands-on research in archaeological conservation.

In addition to opportunities for research, we also have opportunities for excavation on campus. In the past, many of our introductory archaeology classes have worked at a site we call Paul’s Cabin. It looks to the untrained eye like a pile of rocks, but it is actually the remains of a civil war-era cabin. My archaeological methods class during my first year did excavations here. It was amazing to be able to learn hands-on skills without having to leave campus. 

There are also opportunities for study, research and fieldwork off-campus. Our former archaeology professors often took student interns to their dig in Kazakhstan. Now, Professor Pitt excavates in Pompeii during the summer. She hopes to one day teach a course where she can take students abroad to do hands-on work. I did my fieldwork via transfer credits. I took a field school class with Professor Phil Geib from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln during summer 2019. The class went to Boulder, Utah, and excavated a site for a private landowner. The landowner had found artifacts like arrowheads and pot sherds on the surface but wanted to know what else was there. Sweet Briar was incredibly accommodating when it came to providing my transcript to send to UNL. They also helped me every step of the way when having to receive my UNL transcript to get credit here.

Overall, I’m quite happy with my choice to come to Sweet Briar, and I’m pleased with what I was able to accomplish with the archaeology program. We may be a small school, but we have many opportunities for research and learning. 

Hear from Professor Erin Pitt in this virtual archaeology class on mythology and witchcraft.