Twenty-odd stubs from worn-out slate pencils may not seem that noteworthy in a region so rich with history that significant archaeological discoveries are common.
But at the site of the 18th-century Bray School off Prince George and Boundary streets in Williamsburg, they're providing a revealing look at a landmark experiment in black education.
Though only a few tantalizing examples were unearthed when the joint Colonial Williamsburg-College of William and Mary Field School in Historical Archaeology began exploring the grounds around the college's Brown Hall in 2012, many more have cropped up since the students returned this summer for two five-week sessions of digging.
And with the discovery of an especially concentrated cache in a layer of household trash located not far from the location of the school's front door, the growing number of well-used stubs has become compelling.
"One of the things we hoped to learn more about through archaeology was the Bray School's curriculum," Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Mark Kostro said.
"We know very little about 18th-century education -- and even less about black education. But what we have here is a large quantity and density of slate pencils that goes far beyond what you'd expect to see in a normal household assemblage."
Founded in 1760 by William & Mary and an Anglo-American missionary group whose trustees included Benjamin Franklin, the pioneering Bray School is likely to have touched the lives of several hundred young black students over its 14 years, helping give Williamsburg a population of slaves and freemen who were unusually literate.
Numerous ads in the Virginia Gazette describe runaways who could read and write, and who declared they had the right to be free. Some students may have played roles in the secret congregation of slaves and free blacks that led to the founding of America's first African-American church in the late 1700s, say the historians of Williamsburg's historic First Baptist Church.
Exactly how many young black servants learned or perfected those skills at the Bray School -- where their masters sent them in the hopes of adding value to their investments -- is still unknown, says Rockefeller Library fellow Julie Richter, a W&M history lecturer who is studying the scant documentary trail left by the school's pupils.
According to those records at least two of the students were literate, and schoolmistress Ann Wager's qualifications as a teacher make it likely that there were many more.
But not until the discovery of so many additional slate pencils this year was there any solid evidence that the Bray School may have been filled with more than a handful of young black readers and writers.
"Each new thing the archaeologists find makes the school and its students come that much more alive," Richter says.
"Now you can imagine them writing. You can imagine the sound of all those pencils scratching against their slates. And that makes everything we've thought about the Bray School a little bit more real."
Plowed over by farmers in the 1920s, then excavated for a basement during the construction of Brown Hall a few years after that, the footprint of the structure that housed the Bray School has proved to be even more elusive.
"We've been able to investigate the ground in front of and behind the building," Kostro said. "But it's unlikely that we'll be able to look at it directly."
Still, numerous other features have emerged from the site during two seasons of exploration.
At the end of 2012, the field school students unearthed the remains of a late-18th-century slave quarter that provided one of only a dozen or so examples of primitive earth-fast — or post-in-ground — buildings in Williamsburg.
Hidden inside its footprint was a subfloor pit dug and used by the occupants for storing their meager belongings.
"These pits were very common on the outlying plantations," Kostro says. "But this is the only [one] we know from 18th-century Williamsburg."
Other features include a pair of 1700s refuse pits, including one that probably predates the school.
In the last days of this year's final session, the students also found the remnants of an 18th-century brick hearth from a building that was previously unrecorded.
"It doesn't line up with anything on any of our maps," Kostro says, "and it's raising questions about whether or not the mid-1700s Digges House that was located here until it was moved down the street in the 1920s was the building used for the school.
"Everything built here has left some sort of evidence, but it all has to be sorted through — and that can be like working on multiple jigsaw puzzles that have to be pulled apart and then reassembled."
Find more stories about Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
See a video about the Bray School at http://www.dailypress.com