A writing slate fragment found in the Sanders House backyard during the 1981 excavations at Historic Washington Arkansas State Park. This slate is of particular interest because a picture of a house, the number “44” in three different locations, and the name “Sarah” have been permanently scratched into its surface.

A writing slate fragment found in the Sanders House backyard during the 1981 excavations at Historic Washington Arkansas State Park. This slate is of particular interest because a picture of a house, the number “44” in three different locations, and the name “Sarah” have been permanently scratched into its surface.

By Leslie C. “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy and Jamie C. Brandon

A piece of gray slate was found in an excavation unit on the 5th of July, 1981 during archeological investigations in the backyard of the Sanders House in Historic Washington Arkansas State Park in southwest Arkansas. The slate fragment is roughly triangular, and measures 14.2 x 15.3cm. It was once part of a writing slate, shown by the fact it had been chipped and thinned at the edges so the slate could be inserted into grooves of a four piece wooden frame.
Writing slates were commonly used for school lessons before there was cheap access to pencils and paper―generally before the 1870s but well into the twentieth century. They were also used for keeping score in games and for making notes in industrial settings and on shipboard.  Archeological fragments of writing slates are commonly found in excavations of schools, churches, and other similar settings.
This writing slate fragment is of particular interest because a picture of a house, the number “44” in three different locations, and the name “Sarah” have been permanently scratched into its surface. These inscriptions look like the work of a child, and archeologists think they may know which “Sarah” left her name on this slate.
Slate fragment and toys from the Sanders House excavations at Historic Washington Arkansas State Park.
Slate fragment and toys from the Sanders House excavations at Historic Washington Arkansas State Park.
The Sanders urban farmstead, where the slate was found, was built for Simon T. Sanders (1797–1881) and his wife Zenobia, after they moved to Washington in 1836. Simon Sanders was Hempstead County Clerk for three decades after 1838, and was directly involved in laying down the administrative, governmental, and bureaucratic framework of the Washington area, and in maintaining that framework into the chaos of the Civil War and after. The only “Sarah” known to have been living on the site during the nineteenth or twentieth centuries is Simon and Zenobia’s oldest daughter Sarah, born in 1835.
If we think we know which “Sarah” scratched her name in the slate, what of the number 44? The exact year the Sanders House was constructed is not known, but it probably was in the mid-1840s. There is a gap in available tax records for the Sanders from 1843 to 1846. In 1842 and in 1847 Simon and Zenobia were listed as owning four lots on block 19, but the valuation had risen from $800 to $1500 in that period. Based on property values elsewhere in town, this is enough of a rise for substantial improvements to have been made, perhaps the construction of a new house or at least the rebuilding of an existing smaller structure. Thus, it is possible that the Sanders House could have been completed in 1844. Perhaps the drawing of the house etched into the slate is a picture of Sarah’s newly finished home along with the year of its completion.
It is possible that the slate fragment found in the Sanders backyard is nothing more than a scrap of a writing slate discarded by County Clerk Sanders who had been using it for note-keeping. On the other hand, it might be a physical remnant of a belief in Arkansas in the value of education for girls. Although it was not until after the Civil War that Arkansas legislated a public school system, as early as the 1830s many communities were establishing private institutions called Male and Female Academies, also known as “seminaries” because they were sponsored by churches. In fact, Simon Sanders served as secretary for the Washington Male and Female Seminary founded by the Arkansas Methodist Conference in 1845. All three of Sanders’ daughters, Sarah and her younger sisters, Isabella and Zenobia, were educated at the Female Seminary, located only three blocks from their house.
After three decades, the fragment of slate remains enigmatic, and suggestive. It provides a personal and direct connection between us and a 9-year-old Sarah Sanders some 174 years distant. All because Sarah drew a picture of her new house on a discarded writing slate.

Artifact of the Month Series

A first principle of archeology is that the significance of artifacts depends upon documented information about the context of their discovery. At what site was the artifact found? Can we figure out the age of the artifact? Where was it found in relation to site features (houses, trash deposits, activity areas, etc.) and the distribution of other artifacts? Only with knowledge of those facts can we assess further information about the manufacture and use of artifacts, and their role in other spheres of activity such as social organization, trade and exchange, and religious practice.
In this series, we feature select artifacts that are extraordinary both for the context of their discovery and for their unique qualities that contribute exceptionally important information about Arkansas culture and history. New artifacts will be added monthly throughout 2018. Find the list of artifacts here.