Archaeologists Uncover UVA History Through Cistern Excavation

Posted: Updated:

Archaeologists at the University of Virginia are revealing some of the findings from an excavation of a cistern near the historic Rotunda. They now know what it was likely used for, and who built it.

The cistern originally held around 75,000 gallons of water. Archaeologists have uncovered a plate and wall inscriptions that give them more background into its history.

Archaeologist Steve Thompson has been working on the cistern since early January. His crew has removed around four tons of earth to reach the bottom. He says the project is important to understand UVA’s history.

"The structure itself is of interest because it informs us about the water supply here at UVA through the entire 19th century. Getting water to the university was an enormous and continual problem,” said Thompson.

The cistern was filled by rainwater collected in the Rotunda's roof gutters - but they now think the water wasn't meant for consumption.

"They were collecting whatever water they could, mostly with the goal of being able to put out a fire should one start. The cisterns as we understand them were largely for fire suppression,” said Thompson.

One of their most exciting finds was a man's name, James W. Brand, followed by the words "workman of the cistern" scrawled on the walls. They now think they have identified him.

"We believe he was the son of a well-known mason and plasterer who worked for the university,” said Thompson.

This work on the cistern is part of the larger renovation to the Rotunda beginning in May. It will eventually be replaced by the building's air conditioning units.

"A large part of the air handling units will be down in this vault room. Currently they're under the north stair and in a tunnel that's underneath the Rotunda. It's kind of hard to access and perform maintenance on them,” said James Zehmer, historic preservation director at UVA.

The cistern will need to be disassembled to make room for the new facilities.

The archaeology department at UVA plans to preserve it with a 3-D digital model, and the bricks will be used to repair other buildings on campus.

  • Sign Up for Email Alerts

    Sign up to receive news, weather, and breaking news emails from the NBC29 newsroom in your inbox daily.

    * denotes required fields

    Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.