Founded in 1610, Hampton ranked as the principal port of Britain’s richest and most populous American colony into the mid-1700s.
So prosperous and wealthy was the town for so many years that — when urban redevelopment began leveling vast swaths of mostly early-20th-century buildings in the mid-1960s — amateur archaeologists began plucking bag loads of artifacts from the ground with little real digging.
Among the most successful was Kenny Quinn, whose keen-eyed explorations during the construction of Settlers Landing Road and frequent collaborations on the downtown digs mounted by Hamilton “Sis” Sandidge Evans of the Hampton Arts and Humanities Association are described by archaeologists today as legend.
Then there was the grass-roots effort to probe the early-1600s site of St. John’s Church on the east side of the Hampton River, where Archaeological Society of Virginia volunteers such as Eleanor Holt uncovered an ancient footprint and some of the rarest artifacts found in Virginia.
“I’d seen a lot of the material they’d found before I got there. So I knew Hampton was tremendously rich,” recalls Joseph L. Benthall, who Evans hired as the first full-time professional archaeologist to explore the newly accessible historic landscape.
“The state of preservation there is really extraordinary — and we could have done a lot more than we did. But we accomplished a lot with what we had.”
Recruited by Evans and her co-chair Rufus Easter, volunteers provided Benthall’s only staff until a 1970 federal grant enabled him to hire trained archaeologists.