William & Mary just celebrated its 316th anniversary. On Charter Day the crowd assembled at PBK Hall. The choir was in the house and ready to sing. Once the distinguished guests, board of visitors, administrators, and faculty came marching in the party really got started. The Provost, in what may be the highpoint of his academic year, read selected passages from the Royal Charter (“William and Mary by the grace of God, of England, Scotland, France and Ireland…. earnestly desiring, that as far as in us lies, true philosophy, and other good and liberal arts and sciences may be promoted…”). Speeches were given and awards conferred. Geology professor Rowan Lockwood garnered the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award. It was a glorious morning.
Charter Day is a good time to reflect upon the foundation of the College: not the events of 316 years ago that established the College, nor the buildings and bricks that frame campus, but rather the landscape that literally forms the College’s foundation. William & Mary is located on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, a stair-stepped landscape composed of broad, flat plains separated by scarps (the step in the stair) and variably dissected by streams. The College is situated between the James and York River estuaries at an elevation of ~25 meters (80’) above sea level. The map below is color-coded by elevation with red-brown hues at the highest elevations (all of 55 meters/180 feet above sea level) and greenish to gray shades a few meters above sea level. Scarps are readily identifiable as distinct linear features where the changes in color (elevation) are pronounced.
The College is underlain by sediments deposited during ancient times when sea level stood higher than it does today. Four million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean lapped against what is today the Richmond area; a shallow sea, teeming with marine organisms, covered present-day Williamsburg. The shelly creatures from this realm (clams, scallops, and their kin) are preserved today as fossils in the sediments that underlie campus.
In southeastern Virginia, the landscape is variably flooded and exposed in accord with the drumbeat of sea level rises and falls. Two hundred thousand years ago, sea level stood 15 meters higher than today, flooding the major river valleys. Williamsburg occupied a narrow peninsula between the ancestral James and York Rivers. Muddy sediments deposited in those estuaries during high stands of sea level underlie the low-lying terrain along the modern rivers. Points to the east of the Suffolk scarp lay submerged beneath the Atlantic’s waters.
Twenty thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age when vast quantities of water were locked in glacial ice, sea level was 120 meters lower than today, and the Atlantic shoreline stood some 100 kilometers east of present-day Virginia Beach. The Chesapeake Bay was a broad river valley (for the Susquehanna River) while the James and York Rivers were narrow streams coursing slowly across the Coastal Plain.
For an academic institution, the College of William & Mary has a venerable history dating back to the 8th day of February, 1693 when, by writ of the Privy Seal, the sovereigns granted a patent for the founding of a college in the Virginia colony. Heady stuff, but let us be mindful, as well as inquisitive, of the long and intriguing history recorded in the sediments upon which this “…place of universal study” is founded.