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

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