Tantalizing Rows of Williamsburg Artifacts in Plastic Bags Reveal “Rubbish, Treasures and Colonial Life”

Colonial Williamsburg hotel guests and annual passholders have special opportunities to take behind-the-scenes tours focusing on garden restoration, object conservation and other unique topics. “Rubbish, Treasures & Colonial Life” is a 90-minute tour that focuses on archaeological objects and current archaeological research occurring in the Historic Area.

Volunteer John Strassberger began last Tuesday’s tour by telling us about the archaeological excavation of the Ravenscroft site, located at the east end of Williamsburg’s Historic Area at the corner of Botetourt and Nicholson Streets. A few years ago, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists and archaeological field school students worked on excavating a portion of Ravenscroft’s main house and one of the outbuildings, thought to be a kitchen. Although it is a quiet green pasture today, Ravenscroft was a prestigious location in the 18th century. The main house burned in 1896, about 160 years after its construction. Mr. Strassberger explained that the most helpful discovery at an archaeological site like this is the kitchen’s midden, an archaeological term for a trash pit, which provides a valuable indication of human settlement at a site.

Walking past Ravenscroft, we arrived at the archaeology team’s offices off Franklin Street. We took a seat around a table in the room that was once the office of Ivor Noël Hume, the chief archaeologist and director of Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeology program who later became the director of the Department of Archaeological Research until his retirement in 1988.

We began with some historical background about early archaeological endeavors at Colonial Williamsburg. These efforts were guided by the Frenchman’s Map. Known as the “Bible of the Restoration,” the map was created for the purpose of billeting French troops for the winter of 1781-1782. After being lost for more than a century, the map was rediscovered in 1909. The map helped archaeologists identify the location of original building foundations in early excavation efforts at Colonial Williamsburg. The Bodleian Plate, an engraved copperplate discovered in 1929 at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in England, provided additional assistance. As the only known 18th century architectural drawing of Colonial Williamsburg’s principal buildings, the plate became the basis for their restoration and reconstruction of the Wren Building, the Governor’s Palace, and the Capitol.

When the restoration and recreation of Colonial Williamsburg got its start during the 1920s, reconstructing buildings was quite a departure from archaeology being conducted in Egypt, the popular trend of the day. Architects directed Williamsburg’s archaeological program, paying more attention to bricks, hinges, locks and other architectural remains than to shards of pots and animal bones. Mr. Strassberger introduced us to “Jimmy Trenches,” the practice of digging trenches diagonally across sites so that archaeologists wouldn’t miss anything. Invented by Jimmy Knight in the late 1930s, this cross-trenching technique was based on the observation that Williamsburg’s lots were set up in a north-south orientation. By digging parallel trenches diagonal to the lot lines, a shovel blade wide and about a shovel handle apart, it would be easy to discover a brick foundation and uncover bricks. Local laborers doing the digging were instructed to keep anything that looked interesting and to discard the rest.

When curators realized that archaeological artifacts could guide them in accurately furnishing buildings, everything uncovered during a dig became worth keeping and was treated and preserved. So, when Hume arrived at Colonial Williamsburg, the “Jimmy Trench” technique was replaced by the practice of scraping sites with a trowel in one-meter squares. This technique allowed archeologists to know exactly what artifacts came from what locations, since a lot number was assigned and what level of the strata in which the object was found was recorded. This discussion allowed Mr. Strassberger to teach us another archaeological term: terminus post quem (TPQ). Meaning “limit after which,” TPQ is the earliest time an event may have happened. This helps archaeologists establish dates associated with a site with more certainty.

Last year, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists and archaeological field school students excavated at the site of the Brafferton building on the campus of the College of William & Mary. Now, the artifacts they uncovered are stored in orderly rows of plastic bags, waiting to be cataloged. It was hard not to pull up a chair and lend a hand for the rest of the day.

As we admired personalized seals on handblown glass bottles and other artifacts, like Peyton Randolph’s coat of arms on a brass harness, Mr. Strassberger told us how oyster shells tell us about what the climate of a region and what life was like for the people who lived there.

Walking by the Artifact Holding and Study Collection rooms, we saw the original pedestal of the bust of Sir Walter Raleigh from the Raleigh Tavern. We ended our tour in the Faunal Lab, where we looked at animal bones uncovered during archaeological digs.

Colonial Williamsburg’s current reconstruction project is Anderson’s Blacksmith Shop and Public Armoury. Last year, archaeologists uncovered evidence of the Armoury’s tin shop, where coffeepots, tankards, speaking trumpets and other tin items were manufactured for use by the Revolutionary militia. In March, the main Armoury building (or blacksmith shop) and a kitchen opened to the public. Now, archeologists are working on the south end of the Armoury yard. You can stop by the site and watch the archaeological work taking place there, or you can track progress virtually by visiting a blog and watching webcams at http://research.history.org/armoury.

To read more about archaeological discoveries at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites, track down two books by Ivor Noël Hume. In Search of This & That: Tales from an Archaeologist’s Quest and Something from the Cellar: More of This & That are both collections of selected essays that Hume wrote for Colonial Williamsburg, the quarterly journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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