Allison Mickel - The Widow on the Hill

Atlas of Northampton County, Pennsylvania: Map of South Bethlehem

Looking at Lehigh’s Humanities Center, it is clearly a home. In 2023, the class of ANTH 112: Doing Archaeology wanted to uncover the stories this house could tell. A group of students began excavating the backyard of the Humanities Center in order to understand what this house meant to its inhabitants and the neighborhood, before the writing retreats and visits from Wendy Brown and Mireille Fanon Mendès-France.

First, we undertook archival research to lock down dates and names of who lived there when. With the help of Special Collections materials and staff, we learned the names of the chaplains and their families who lived in the house before it became the Humanities Center. We learned that Lehigh acquired the property in 1959, as part of the negotiations over the neighborhood with Bethlehem Steel. We learned that the house had been standing in its current form since at least 1910. And then we saw this map from 1874.

Roughly where the Humanities Center now stands is a single building with a name– Mrs. Sayer. As a “Mrs,” and the head of the household, this woman would most likely have been a widow. And there is almost nothing around her, in contrast to the densely populated areas of 3rd and 4th streets.

Her name, too, is spelled differently than the wealthy Sayre family, and we consulted with the South Bethlehem Historical Society to confirm that there was no widow in their family at that time. Special Collections’ access to census records gave us a few possibilities for her first name– but we really know almost nothing about this mysterious 19th century widow, living alone on the hill. To learn more about her, we will have to do more archaeology.

The Widow on the Hill

Allison Mickel, Associate Professor and Director of Global Studies

Department of Anthropology