Members of the Tidewater Virginia Historical Society, Fairfield Foundation and the Archaeological Society of Virginia start an archaeological survey at New Quarter Park.

Walk down the old landing road at New Quarter Park and it doesn't take long before everything man-made but the winding gravel path has been swallowed up by nature.

Large oak and beech trees tower overhead, filtering the sunlight above a dense understory of smaller saplings and holly bushes. White-tailed deer venture close enough to be seen as well as heard foraging for twigs, buds and acorns behind screens of leaves.

Step back in time nearly 300 years ago, however, and this crest of land overlooking the York River ranked among the most productive tobacco-growing tracts owned by Virginia's richest and most powerful planter.

Newly imported Africans obtained through the burgeoning slave port at Yorktown are likely to have labored in these fields, as did at least some remaining white indentured servants.

The proof can be found in the contents of the shovel tests conducted at New Quarter Park Thursday by archaeologists and volunteers from the Tidewater Virginia Historical Society, Archeological Society of Virginia and Fairfield Foundation in cooperation with the park.

Not a single test has come up empty, revealing bits of Chinese porcelain and English delftware mixed with pipe stems, wrought-iron nails and fragments of brick — all in the layers of trash left hidden by the minions of Robert "King" Carter just a few inches below the surface.

"One of the big questions about this site is how long was it occupied — and by whom?" says archaeologist Thane Harpole, co-director of the Fairfield Foundation.

"Was it indentured servants? Was it slaves? We're finding all kinds of stuff here almost right at the surface — and it's not really buried — it's never or barely been plowed. So finding out a little more about who occupied this site is one of the things we might be able to determine."

Originally surveyed by archaeologists when the land was acquired in the late 1970s, New Quarter Park contains a list of more than 30 historic sites dating from the prehistoric era to the Battle of Williamsburg during the Civil War.

But except for a few test units excavated several years ago at the site believed to be that of Carter's New Quarter plantation complex, none has received prolonged attention.

This week's two-day dig won't answer every question either, says Forrest Morgan, vice president of the Tidewater Virginia Historical Society.

But with as many as 30 or 40 shovel tests being conducted at measured intervals of 25 feet, it will add considerably to what is known about the site by filling in and refining the previous excavation grid.

Trained volunteers are conducting much of the work, probing the 12- to 20-inch-deep holes alongside Harpole and Fairfield Foundation co-director David Brown as well as several newcomers to archaeology.

The site also will be open to spectators when the work resumes on Friday.

"In two days, we're going to dig as many shovel tests as we can," Harpole says.

"But the other goal here is public education. We want people to come and see what we're doing."

In addition to the grid of shovel tests, the archaeologists will open up and explore several test units measuring 21/2-by-21/2 feet in size in order to probe the site still further.

Though the number and kind of artifacts they find will be their guide as they dig, the long-term goal of both the archaeologists and the park is the discovery and excavation of New Quarter's lost colonial structures.

Numerous buildings can be seen clustered here on a late-18th-century map, but thus far the ceramic fragments unearthed point to an occupation dating to the first half of the 1700s.

They also suggest that the inhabitants who threw them away may have been better off than expected.

"We know there was a large structure in this area — and we think we're close," park interpreter Sara Lewis says, referring to the discovery of numerous brick fragments and wrought-iron nails.

"If we can find the outline, it will tell us a lot about what life was really like in these outlying farms."

Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more stories about Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.

Want to go?

Public archaeology at Burwell's Quarter in New Quarter Park

Where: 1000 Lakeshead Drive, Williamsburg

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday

Info: 757-890-5840 or 804-815-4467. fairfieldfoundation.org