We Really Dig History!: Summer 2019’s Excavation at Ferry Farm

From late May through early August of 2019, archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm were busy working in the field again, excavating a block of 18 5’x5’ units located on the east side of the Washington house. It’s not obvious today, but the area directly to the south and west of our 2019 block had previously been excavated between 2008 and 2018 down to sterile subsoil and back-filled with dirt. The grass grew back, leaving no signs of this previous activity, but the concentration and variety of artifacts found indicated something was going on in this area of the site when the Washington family was living here in the 18th century. This didn’t surprise us all that much though, as this area was the “workyard” of the Washington house, where most of the daily activities related to the running of the household were taking place.

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Location of 2019 excavation block near the Washington house site.

You might remember from last season’s dig blog, that we excavated the “north yard” of the house, which was visible from Fredericksburg, the river, and the ferry landing during the 18th century. Our excavations last year concluded that the north yard was actually quite clean of artifacts (garbage) and features, suggesting people valued the aesthetic look of this area and kept it very orderly and free of daily activities – likely because it was visible to the entire town across the river. In direct contrast to this clean space is the workyard – the fenced areas located behind the house. The workyard is where the daily household-related activities such as cooking, laundering, and dairying took place. Corresponding structures such as a kitchen, storage sheds, smokehouse, and temporary work spaces, were located here and doubled as living quarters for the enslaved people who worked in these spaces. With all these activities happening within this outdoor space, it’s not surprising that archaeologists have found an abundance of 18th century artifacts in this area over the years.

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The 2019 dig crew: (L-R) Elyse Adams, Sarah Perdue, Frank Amico, Judy Jobrack and (front) Lizzie O’Meara.

The 2019 dig crew consisted of two field directors — Judy Jobrack and Elyse Adams — and three archaeologists — Frank Amico, Lizzie O’Meara, and Sarah Perdue. For a total of 11 weeks our five-person crew slowly excavated thin layers of dirt in the 15’ x 30’ block in search of evidence of activity areas and outbuildings related to the workyard. Our approach to excavating the area was to take down all the units in the entire block at the same time — removing all the 20th century layers, then the 19th century layers, and so on — instead of taking each individual unit down to the subsoil. This would allow us to view any related features, such as building foundations or post holes, at the same time.

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Dave Muraca, director of archaeology at Ferry Farm & Kenmore, lends a hand in getting the excavation block started.

The dig started with the removal of the grass and topsoil layers from all eighteen units. To our surprise, we were greeted with an obstacle that measured between 6 inches and 2 feet deep across the entire block. Remember the 2016-2017 construction of the Washington house? Well, as with any large project, there was a lot of disturbance to the surrounding lawn by vehicles and construction activities. A significant layer of dirt and gravel had to be laid down to grade the landscape and gravel access road leading up the house. It happened only two years ago, and yet we completely forgot about this fill activity! We dug this disturbed layer out with shovels and pick axes without screening the dirt until we revealed the 2016 grass and topsoil layers. Two weeks after starting, the real dig began.

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Two feet of construction fill layer as seen in the sidewall of an excavated unit.

The number of artifacts we found, especially those dating to the 18th century, was not disappointing. Ceramics such as Whieldon, tin-glazed earthenware, Westerwald, and white salt-glazed stoneware were abundant in the area, as were various types of redwares and stonewares typical to food storage and other utilitarian purposes. Other colonial-era artifacts included wrought nails, tobacco pipe stem fragments, and a total of 12 wig hair curler fragments. The amount of 18th century-dated artifacts definitely overshadowed the number of 19th and 20th century artifacts in the area.

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FF30 block during excavation.

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18th century ceramics and a wine bottle neck found this summer.

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Wig curler fragment found this summer.

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Civil War uniform button and Minié ball found this summer.

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Projectile point found this summer.

In addition to artifacts, a number of 18th-century features were uncovered, including the “rut-like” parallel linear features (F274 and F275) in the photo below. Figuring out what these and other features found in the 18th century layers may be will take place over the coming months.

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Two parallel, linear 18th century features.

The excavation ended on August 9th within the 18th century level, and the site was covered by a tarp until next year. The 2020 season’s dig will continue excavations in this block until subsoil is reached, but will also expand by opening more 5’ x 5’ units to the north. After washing, researching, and cataloging the thousands of artifacts recovered this season, our staff will have a clearer idea of what activities were going on in this part of the work yard, so that we can reconstruct these areas accurately as we did the Washington house itself. It’s going to be a busy winter for the lab staff while we put together the pieces of the workyard puzzle.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director / Assistant Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Thievery, Espionage, and Fancy Dishes: Why Porcelain Was a Big Deal for the Washington Family

Porcelain is the king of all ceramics.  As resilient as it is beautiful, porcelain has long fascinated many people.  During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the Chinese began exporting porcelain to Europeans, who coveted the precious dishes to the point that porcelain became more valuable than gold.  Europeans obsessed over how it was produced and various countries sent spies, attempted to kidnap those with the knowledge, and sought to steal texts describing the process.  The Chinese closely guarded the secret, however, and the recipe for the clays and how to get the firing temperature high enough (between 2,200, and 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit) remained a mystery.  The Chinese had been making hard-paste porcelain (as opposed to soft-paste porcelain, which was considered less desirable) for over a thousand years.  That’s a well-kept secret, folks.

Porcelain (1)

Tea canister with hand painted landscape motif.

In the 16th century, the first Europeans attempted to make porcelain in Florence but without success.  Following that, Portuguese traders returned from China with kaolin, a clay found to be key in making porcelain, but they didn’t know what else to add to it so it would survive the high firing.  Then, around 1700, a teenage alchemy apprentice with poor judgement named Johann Friedrich Böttger boasted that he knew the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that would turn base metals into gold.   Word got out and he was kidnapped first by Frederick I of Prussia and then Augustus II the Strong of Poland.  Augustus locked him up in Dresden and ordered him to make good on his claim.  Obviously he couldn’t and to avoid being killed by the increasingly impatient king, he reluctantly partnered in 1707 with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a scientist working on developing porcelain.  Combining their efforts resulted in the first hard-paste porcelain manufactured in Europe and resulted in the establishment of the Meissen porcelain factory in 1710.

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Saucer fragment (rim and body) with hand painted landscape motif and gilding

But the intrigue doesn’t end there.  In 1712, Father Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a French Jesuit, learned the secrets of how the Chinese manufactured porcelain with the help of Chinese he had converted to Catholicism.  He published a letter detailing the process, in what was arguably an act of industrial espionage, and it began circulating through Europe.  To further complicate matters, Samuel Stölzel, an employee of the Meissen factory, which fought hard to prevent its employees from blabbing about their secret for making porcelain, fled the factory’s oppressive conditions in 1719. He made it to Vienna, where he promptly spilled the aforementioned secret.  Within a few decades, porcelain was being produced widely across Europe.  Although Chinese porcelain was still highly valued, their exports began to drop off.

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Rim sherds from a hand painted teacup.

As evidenced by all this thievery and espionage, porcelain was a big deal.  Owning porcelain was a sign of status and refinement.  If you were of the European upper class, it was imperative that you own these fancy dishes AND show them off whenever possible.  It was no less imperative for the gentry class in British North America.  Archaeological analysis of the Washington family’s porcelain illustrates that they were very much a part of this culture of conspicuous consumption when they lived at Ferry Farm.

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Rim and body sherds from a hand painted punch bowl in the Imari palette.

Our current mending project, piecing together porcelain sherds recovered from Ferry Farm, revealed dozens of distinct dishes once owned by the family.  George Washington’s mother Mary owned porcelain predominantly from China.  Interestingly, all were teawares as opposed to dinner wares.  While dinner was definitely a time to show off one’s ‘good china’, colonial tea time was arguably an even better opportunity.  Serving tea in the 18th century had a large ceremonial aspect and was an opportunity for those participating to show off how cultured they were while serving a beverage (also from the distant locale of China as well as India) linked closely to high status.  Perhaps Mary, a widow on a budget, decided to put her limited resources into more conspicuous teawares rather than dinner plates and bowls.  Previous analysis in our archaeology lab indicates that Mary preferred a ceramic called white salt-glazed for her dinner dishes.

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Hand painted partial teacup with scalloped rim.

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Matching saucer for teacup for teacup immediately above.

It has also been interesting to discover the china patterns that Mary favored, which include landscape scenes, abstract geometrical designs, and floral patterns.  While she did not appear to own ‘sets’ of china she did have cups that matched saucers, a further illustration of refinement.  As complete sets of china were not common in the middle of the 18th century, one could attempt to match up similar color palettes.  Although we’ve identified dozens of motifs in our collection, there is little evidence for Mary matching the palettes of her porcelains.  Her table, as with most colonial households, was a lot more varied in colors and patterns than we expect in the modern day.  Mary’s porcelains were delicate and skillfully hand-painted with brushes sometimes containing no more than a few bristles.  Many of the teawares are also gilded, which was a premium type of decoration for the time.

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Two chocolate/coffee style cups. Hand painted and likely gilded.

In addition to teacups and saucers, our archaeologists have identified one tea canister and a few coffee or chocolate style cups, which tend to have taller and straighter sides and be of a smaller diameter.

With this mending experiment under our belt it’s on to the next one in our never ending quest to learn as much as we can about the Washington family!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

George Washington Slept Here… Twice!

Watching the Fire

The black darkness of night — before electric lights – is hard for us to imagine today. We assume life simply stopped as our ancestors awaited day’s return, though historical research suggests it did not.  People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and even visited neighbors in the dead of night. In one instance, George Washington wrote John Hancock, saying “From the hours allotted to Sleep, I will borrow a few moments to convey my thoughts on sundry important matters to Congress.”  Night did not necessarily mean sleep for early Americans.

Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found substantial documentary evidence that, before the Industrial Revolution, people “experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness.”  This ‘segmented sleep’ was referred to as first sleep, watch or watching, and second or morning sleep.[1]  It seems that people of the 18th century did not immediately go to bed with the onset of darkness.  They waited until about two hours after dusk.  Once they went to bed, they slept for four hours but, not long after midnight, they awoke and remained awake for an hour or two. Eventually, they fell back asleep, slept for about four more hours, and awoke around dawn.

The idea of segmented sleep has been supported by some scientific studies, the most notable of which was conducted by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. In the study, Wehr removed electric light from people’s lives.  After a four-week adjustment period, the study’s subjects moved away from sleeping for eight uninterrupted hours and actually reverted to sleeping for four hours, being awake for one or two, and then sleeping for four more hours. How many of us who suffer with ‘insomnia’ might simply be hanging on to an older sleeping pattern altered by the relatively new technology of electric light?

Segmented sleep, however, may not even be the oldest human sleeping pattern. Research published in Current Biology in 2015 raises the possibility that, in actuality, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an even older sleeping pattern than segmented sleep.  Scientists studied some of Earth’s last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers and found that all three groups slept for 7 to 8.5 hours per night without a period of wakefulness.  The study’s primary author, Jerome Siegel of UCLA, “doesn’t dispute Ekirch’s analysis; he just thinks that the old two-block pattern was preceded by an even older single-block one.” Siegel speculates that segmented sleep arose when humans moved away from the equator into latitudes with longer periods of darkness.

So during the many centuries that humans followed the segmented sleep pattern, what did people do during watch, that time in the middle of the night between first and second sleeps?  The short answer is almost anything!  Most people seem to have simply remained quietly in bed, perhaps pondering their dreams or even praying.  They may have talked with their bedmate, who was not just a spouse but could have have been another servant in the household or another traveler overnighting at the tavern. Beds were often used to full capacity, even if that meant sleeping with a stranger.

If people rose from bed during watch, it might have been to use the chamber pot or privy.

Work took place too, since fires might need tending or the next day’s baking started.  The ancient Roman poet Virgil even mentions women servants spinning yarn during watch.

On farms, a full moon could practically turn night into day. Work schedules changed to take advantage of the light.  “For several nights every September,” writes Ekirch, “light from the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is more prolonged than usual because of the small angle of the moon’s orbit.  Well known in England as the ‘harvest moon’ . . . farmers on both sides of the Atlantic benefited from the moonlight to gather crops. ‘Sometimes,’ Jasper Charlton wrote in 1735, ‘the harvest people work all night at their hay or corn.’  Nearly as useful was the ‘hunter’s moon’ in October, when a full moon next appeared. ‘The moon of September,’ declared a writer, ‘shortens the night. The moon of October is hunter’s delight.’”[2]

If there was no moon or work to do, night brought a respite from the hard routine and strict rules of the workday for laborers, tradesmen, servants and slaves.  Enslaved people especially relished night as a time to run away, to sneak away and visit family on other plantations, to gather together for celebrations, to earn money through extra work, or simply to do whatever personal chores had piled up while working for master or mistress.

Hogarth's Night

“Night” by William Hograth, one painting from his Four Times of the Day series completed in 1736, depicts “disorderly activities under the cover of night” on Charing Cross Road in London. For the fascinating details about what is happening in the painting, visit Four Times of the Day on Wikipedia. Public domain.

The darkness of watch afford ne’er-do-wells opportunity to steal and poach.  Even Washington noted how night was a time for thieving when he complained about slaves using dogs to “aid them in their night robberies” of his sheep.

Because of segmented sleep, night, at least in George Washington’s day, seems to have been a surprisingly active time.  People were awake for a couple of hours each night and during that time did almost anything imaginable from personal errands and household chores to farm labor and crime to prayer and meditation.  The 18th century may have literally been a darker time but it was not necessarily a time for more sleep.

This Saturday, September 14, experience an 18th century night during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore!  Explore the night sky’s history through constellation stories well-known to early Americans, learn about eighteenth-century lighting inside Kenmore’s candlelit dining room, and witness two enslaved women using night to plan an escape in a dramatic theater scene. This special hour-long guided tour departs Kenmore’s visitor center at 8:00pm.  After the guided tour, visitors can gaze at the full moon through a telescope, make a night sky-themed craft to take home, and enjoy cookies and cider.  The event will take place rain or shine.

$12.00 adults | $6.00 students | free, ages 3 and under.
Reservations recommended. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005: 300-1.

[2] Ekirch, 171.

History in the Night Sky

Historic Kenmore at night.

Historic Kenmore at night.

The night sky is the astronomer’s workspace, the explorer’s final frontier, and, perhaps surprisingly, the historian’s library of epic tales, myths, and legends.  This library of stars connects us to the cultures and civilizations of our past in a uniquely special way.  The Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, British colonists of the 18th century, and even George Washington himself all looked up at essentially the same night sky we can see two centuries later.

Inspired by stories, myths, and legends, our ancestors gazed into the sky and connected the stars together into patterns they imagined were familiar objects, fierce animals, great heroes, or powerful gods. We call these patterns ‘constellations’ and the stories or ‘star lore’ they tell are as old as humanity itself.

Imagine a clear, crisp early November night.  George Washington and his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis are walking home from a nearby tavern.  George is enjoying another of his occasional visits with his sister and her husband in Fredericksburg.  During their journey home, the two men’s path is lit only by the small flame in the glass lantern they carry. Once in a while, they see a feeble candle through a house window.  Otherwise, the Fredericksburg they walk through is far darker than we could imagine today.  Consequently, George and Fielding see millions of sparkling pinpoints of light over their heads.

As educated men, George and Fielding could identify and name numerous constellations created by these pinpoints of light.  On their imaginary November walk, the two men no doubt spotted Orion, Cassiopeia, Bootes, and, of course, the distinctive Big Dipper pattern that forms part of the constellation Ursa Major or “The Great Bear.”

Great Bear Big Dipper

This map of the constellation Ursa Major. the “Great Bear,” highlights the asterism known as the Big Dipper. An asterism is a star pattern that can be found within an officially-recognized constellation. So, technically, the Big Dipper is not actually a constellation but is simply part of the Ursa Major constellation. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially designates which star patterns are constellations. Map by Rursus,

They would have known the Greek myths attached to each of these constellations.  For example, the myth behind the Great Bear says that the goddess Hera turned Callisto, a maiden desired by Hera’s husband, the god Zeus, into a bear.  Zeus then lifted the bear into the sky by its tail, causing the tail to stretch. The three stars of the dipper’s handle represent this elongated tail.  Another Greek tale says Hercules threw a troublesome bear into the sky by grabbing its tail, swinging it above his head, and flinging it up to join the stars.  Probably even more familiar to plantation owners like George and Fielding was the idea – common throughout Britain – that the stars of the Dipper actually form a plow.

In the basements, attics, and kitchens of some of the houses George and Fielding passed, enslaved men, women, and children slept. Brought in chains from their African homelands, they looked up at the night sky above the land of their enslavement and were reminded of home by the constellations they saw.  Some of these Africans may have seen what they termed “The Drinking Gourd.”  Indeed, there is speculation that our common use of the Big Dipper as the name for this distinct pattern comes directly from the African idea that the stars form a hollowed out gourd used for collecting and drinking water.  In the 1800s, the drinking gourd formed the basis of the African American folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which, it is claimed, contained thinly veiled instructions for enslaved people to follow when running north to seize their freedom.  The Dipper pattern can indeed assist someone navigating by the stars to find the North Star.

Before George, Fielding, and their slaves lived in Fredericksburg, Native Americans occupied the land along the Rappahannock River.  Interestingly, like the Greeks, certain Algonquian-speaking nations, also saw the Big Dipper as a bear.  Instead of a long tail, however, the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were three hunters who chased the bear across the sky.  This chase lasted until autumn when the hunters killed the bear and its blood fell to Earth and caused the leaves to change color.

It is increasingly difficult for today’s Americans to see the library of epic tales, myths, and legends in our night sky.  The glow from streetlights, security lights, lighted signs, and other outdoor lighting is blotting out the stars from view.  Indeed, 2/3 of Americans – over 200 million people – can’t see the Milky Way from their own homes.  In 1994, an earthquake knocked out all the power to Los Angeles.  Many anxious residents phoned authorities to report a “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky.  They were seeing the Milky Way, normally obliterated by the urban sky glow.

Light pollution

Milky Way from Mount Saint Helens with light pollution from Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ray Terrill

If we can’t see the stars, we may ultimately forget the stories they tell and even more tragically our ancestors – the Greeks, Africans, and Native Americans – who created those stories.  More and more, we are no longer looking up at the same night sky that George and Fielding beheld on their imagined walk home from the tavern.  The same sparkling stars are still there.  We just can’t see for the light.

On Saturday, September 14, learn more star lore during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore!  Explore the night sky’s history through constellation stories well-known to early Americans, learn about eighteenth-century lighting inside Kenmore’s candlelit dining room, and witness two enslaved women using night to plan an escape in a dramatic theater scene. This special hour-long guided tour departs Kenmore’s visitor center at 8:00pm.  After the guided tour, visitors can gaze at the full moon through a telescope, make a night sky-themed craft to take home, and enjoy cookies and cider.

$12.00 adults | $6.00 students | free, ages 3 and under.
Reservations recommended. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs