Mending Those Humble Sherds

What do archaeologists do with the broken ceramic and glass artifacts after these objects have been excavated, cleaned, and catalogued? They are cool to look at but what do these little pieces actually tell us about the past? How can we use them to understand the lives of those who purchased, used, and eventually discarded them?

One method is by mending the sherds (‘sherd’ is the term we use to describe broken pieces of ceramic and glass) to re-create the vessels. We mend by spreading out all of the fragments on a table and carefully seeing which ones fit together. Then, we use non-damaging tape to join the pieces temporarily. If deemed appropriate, we might decide to carefully glue the sherds together – with removable archival glue, of course!

Sherds to be mending in the Archaeology Lab at George Washington's Ferry Farm

Sherds to be mending in the Archaeology Lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

As archaeologists mend and a vessel takes shape, we can determine a number of details about the object we couldn’t when it was just a pile of broken stuff! First, we can figure out what type of vessel it was and what its uses were. Determining the vessel type helps us figure out what activities took place in a given excavation area. Cooking vessels mean the area was used for food preparation. Plates, bowls, and cups show the area was used for dining while crocks indicate a storage area.

Second, we can determine how much a mended vessel was used by the “use-wear” present on it. For instance, a chamber pot kept under a bed and drawn out from its storage place a couple of times a day will start to exhibit wear marks on the base where it is dragged across the floor. These grooves usually run parallel with the handle. The longer the pot is used the more wear it acquires. The same goes for knife-marks on dinner plates or stir-marks in drinking vessels. However, it is difficult to truly examine the use of a chamber pot using just one sherd. It is preferable to have as much of a whole vessel as possible, so we must mend!

Yay! They match!

Yay! They match!

Within the archaeological community, the general opinion is that mending is a fun activity. It definitely is! What is more fun than taking ancient fragments long-ago discarded by their owners and creating tankards, porringers, teapots, jugs, and all manner of other vessels that say something about who used them? It is one thing to show someone a sherd of porcelain and say “George Washington’s mother may have owned this” and quite another to show them a mended teapot and declare “George Washington was served tea from this very pot!” That being said, mending is also frustrating at times. Imagine taking 100 puzzles, mixing them all together, throwing away 90 percent of the pieces, and then trying to work the puzzles! This is basically mending in a nutshell. Some of us stare at the sherds for so long that we see them when we close our eyes or go to sleep! Now, that’s dedication!

It is rare that an entire vessel can be completely reconstructed. When an object is broken, perhaps all of the fragments do not get swept up and deposited in the same place. Areas where people lived sometimes become agricultural fields and are plowed for decades or longer, resulting in fragments of vessels being further broken and scattered about the landscape. Insects and animals move artifacts when burrowing in the soil, a process termed ‘bioturbation’. We do the best we can with the artifacts we’ve recovered.

Pearlware waste or ‘slop’ bowl. Hand painted. Made in England between 1795 and 1830.  This bowl would have been used during the tea ceremony as a receptacle for spent tea leaves or unwanted cold tea before refilling a cup with hot tea.

Pearlware waste or ‘slop’ bowl. Hand painted. Made in England between 1795 and 1830. Excavated at Historic Kenmore. This bowl would have been used during the tea ceremony as a receptacle for spent tea leaves or unwanted cold tea before refilling a cup with hot tea.

Still, archaeologists really love when we mend a vessel to near perfection and put it on display for the public along with all the information we’ve learned from it. We’ve actually just finished mending German Westerwald stonewares and we’ll share some of that project’s results in the not-too-distant future. Soon, we’ll be moving onto English white stonewares. On your next visit to Ferry Farm, you’ll likely see a mending project on display in our laboratory and maybe some of our talented staff working hard to unlock the secrets contained within those humble sherds!

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist/Ceramics and Glass Specialist

George Washington’s Birthday Celebration

The annual George Washington’s Birthday Celebration at Ferry Farm took place on Saturday, February 14.  Fun family activities included colonial-era games, crafts, the Stone Throw Challenge, theater performances, and birthday cake!  Here are some photos from the event.

George Washington, Baseball Player?

I find that February, though it has the fewest days, can be the longest month of the year. The novelty of winter has worn off and, often, I simply seem to be enduring until the first glimpses of spring in March. I do, however, look forward with excitement to two moments in February: George Washington’s Birthday and the day that Major League Baseball’s pitchers start their spring training. In a way, these two events are connected by more than their close proximity to one another on the calendar.

After the familiar cherry tree tale, the second most popular story about George Washington’s youth is the story of him throwing a rock the size of a silver dollar across a river. This legend has changed several times over the years but it may have some truth.

The earliest version appears in The Life of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, who notes that George’s cousin remembered seeing him “throw a stone across [the] Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg.”[1] George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s son, provides a bit more detail for this toss, noting that the rock was actually “a piece of slate, fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar, and which, sent by an arm so strong, not only spanned the river, but took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side.”[2] Archaeologist Phil Levy estimates “that could have been a distance of anywhere from a staggering 440 feet (professional baseball fields vary from 390 to 435 feet at the centerfield wall) to an impressive 340 feet.”[3]

We’ll never have the evidence historians need to say with certainty that young George actually threw a rock across the Rappahannock. It is a plausible story, however. So, each February at Ferry Farm’s birthday celebration, visitors try and duplicate George’s feat, provided the day’s weather or any lingering snow on the ground doesn’t prevent us from traipsing down to the river.

A visitor attempts to throw a rock across the Rappahannock River during the George Washington Birthday Celebration at Ferry Farm.

The feat has actually been duplicated, most famously by Walter “Big Train” Johnson, celebrated pitcher for the Washington Senators, on a Depression-era February day in 1936. Officials in charge of that year’s birthday celebration at Ferry Farm challenged the retired Major League right-hander, raising the ire of Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, who believed the story of Washington’s toss, to be “preposterous.” Quoted in the February 18, 1936 edition of The Free Lance Star, Bloom felt the feat “physically impossible” because “Washington was about 10 years old when the miracle was supposed to have happened.” Perhaps, he forgot that George lived at Ferry Farm well into his late teens?

A few days before the celebration, reporters found Johnson training for the toss by throwing a coin at the barn on his Germantown, Maryland farm. “‘Maybe I can’t throw that far,’ he drawled, ‘but there’s one thing certain—if George Washington did it, I can too.’”

Walter Johnson poses as if in mid-throw on the icy bank of the Rappahannock.

Finally, the day came. On the front page of the February 22, 1936 edition, The Free Lance Star’s banner headline trumpeted “‘Big Train’ Duplicates Washington’s Feat.” Standing on the Ferry Farm side of the river at 2:30 p.m. that day, Johnson took two practice tosses. The first plopped into the water just five feet short of the bank while the second made it across. Then, he attempted the official throw. Johnson “drew back his famous right arm and with a powerful heave let fly a silver dollar that sailed high into the air, spanned the 273 foot stream and plunked on the opposite bank.” Bloom graciously wired his congratulations and invited Johnson to stop in Washington and celebrate with him on his way back to Germantown.

Front page of The Free Lance Star, February 22, 1936

The attempt became something of a national sensation with newspapers in Michigan, Florida, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, and beyond reporting the story. A live radio program on the Columbia Broadcasting System beamed a description of the throw into countless homes across the nation.

Although it doesn’t garner the attention it did in 1936, the Stone Throw Challenge remains a centerpiece of Ferry Farm’s annual Washington’s Birthday Celebration when the weather allows it. On that day, which is usually about the time that today’s aspiring Walter Johnsons are starting to prepare for their seasons, I think of a day during the Great Depression when a big league pitcher added to his own legend by duplicating the prodigious feat of the most legendary American of all. As I watch our visitors attempt their throws, I think of the “Big Train” and I also always wonder just what kind of ballplayer George Washington might have been.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Join us at Ferry Farm on Saturday, February 14 for our George Washington’s Birthday Celebration, when – weather permitting – we’ll see if anyone else can throw a stone across the Rappahannock River. Along with the Stone Throw Challenge, enjoy crafts, games, exhibits, live history performances, and birthday cake! Visit for more details about the Birthday Celebration along with Archaeology Day on Monday, February 16!

[1] Mason Locke Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, Macy-Masius Publishers, 1927: 39.

[2] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, Philadelphia, J.W. Bradley, 1861: 482.

[3] Phil Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013: 226.

Snow Days

This year, we’ve not had a particularly photographic snow at George Washington’s Ferry Farm or Historic Kenmore… yet.  Snow eventually will come but, until then, we’re sharing some of our best snowy photos from last year and from ten years ago.