We’re Still Digging!: An Update on 2021’s Archaeological Excavation at Ferry Farm [Photos]

The 2021 archaeological dig season at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is over two-thirds complete. Here’s a collection of photos taken in the field of a few artifacts discovered thus far.  You can read an overview of our expectations and goals for this year’s dig here.  Visitors can ask archaeologists questions and observe their work Monday through Friday at Ferry Farm. The dig continues until August 20.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

We’re Digging!: A Preview of 2021’s Archaeological Excavation at Ferry Farm

Visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm will once again be able to meet and talk to our staff archaeologists as they work at our archaeological dig this summer. The dig opened this past Monday, June 7 and runs through Friday, August 20. Archaeologists dig Monday through Friday.

Approximate location of the 2021 archaeological dig at Ferry Farm.

The dig is located on the east side of the Washington house in the work yard.  The work yard is where the everyday activities associated with the running of an 18th-century household took place. These activities including food preparation, cooking and cleaning, washing laundry, animal husbandry, dairying, household storage and wig maintenance.  Eventually showing and interpreting these activities as well as incorporating our findings into Ferry Farm’s history are the reasons we dig.

We are looking for the remains of outbuildings in this area of the site.  Luckily for us, last fall we uncovered a large post mold and hole which we suspect is a structural part of one such outbuilding. This first week we are opening up multiple 5’x5’ units to the south of our posthole feature in anticipation of finding more of this structure.   

Large post mold and hole located at the southern edge of the 2020 site.

Our crew will consist of four paid interns in addition to Elyse Adams and myself as co-site directors.  COVID-19 has again eliminated the possibility of university archaeology students joining us for a six-week field school this year, but we hope they can finally return next year. 

The 2021 dig will be located directly beneath our visitor’s feet in this photo.

Over the next 12 weeks, we’ll post some of our more interesting discoveries during on Ferry Farm’s Facebook and Instagram so everyone can stay up-to-date our progress.  When you visit Ferry Farm, please stop by the excavation site to ask questions and watch us at work. We are happy to share our daily findings and explain the process of digging into the Washington family’s past!

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-field Director

The Fossils of Ferry Farm

Archaeologists have one pretty big hang up, and that is when people ask us if we dig for dinosaurs.  We’re so obsessed with making sure that people know we don’t dig dinosaurs that you can find shirts, coffee mugs, keychains, and other merchandise that all say “Archaeologists Don’t Dig Dinosaurs.” But we get it: dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are super cool- just ask my 4-and-a-half-year-old son or my nine-year-old nephew.  Still, we archaeologists go to great lengths to emphasize that archaeology and paleontology are pretty different.  Archaeologists study historic and pre-historic human cultures by examining the artifacts they left behind.  Basically, we obsess over dead people’s broken stuff. Paleontologists, however, study ancient plants and animals using the fossil record.  Now, that being said, archaeologists do frequently happen to uncover fossils while excavating for artifacts. We’ve made our share of fossil finds while digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and we’re going to share some of those finds with you today.

Archaeologists Don’t Dig Dinosaurs T-Shirt. Credit: cafepress

First, it should be noted that what we call Virginia today looked a lot different when the creatures our fossil finds represent were alive.  During the Cretaceous and early Paleogene periods, which lasted from 145 to around 56 million years ago, much of this part of Virginia was at times completely underwater as part of the newly formed Atlantic Ocean, while inland areas were very swampy with high temperatures and humidity (Yes, even more so than today’s notorious Virginia climate. Back then, it got up to around 100 degrees most days).  Hence, most of the fossils we recover are from marine environments or swamps.

Let’s start with one of my favorites: the turritella, a species of spiral-shaped gastropods or mollusks that still exist today. The turritella we find at Ferry Farm, however, are around 50 million years old.  We don’t usually find the shell, but rather the ‘cast’ which forms when sediment fills the inside of a dead mollusk’s shell and then turns to stone, leaving an impression of the inside of the animal.  The resulting fossil cast resembles a corkscrew.  They’re pretty common in this area.  In this picture, you can see a turritella that still has its shell and fragments of the interior case.  Usually they can be found in clusters, representing mass die-off events in which a lot of the turritella met their demise all at once.

Conglomerate of turritella fossils.

Bits of turritella excavated at Ferry Farm.

Turritella casts from the author’s collection.

Other marine fossils we’ve found include pelecypods.  These bivalves resemble modern day scallops and are estimated to be around 60 million years old.  We have two fragments found at Ferry Farm next to a whole example unearthed by my husband Joe Blondino, who is also an archaeologist, while on another excavation.  We believe these to be Chesapecten jeffersonius pelecypods, which is the Virginia state fossil. Tuck that back in your brain for future trivia nights!

Fragments of Chesapecten jeffersonius found at Ferry Farm (foreground) next to whole examples from the author’s collection.
Ray mouth plate fragment excavated at Ferry Farm.

This little guy above is another one of my favorites.  It may not look like much, but this is a ray mouth plate fragment.  Rays, which also still exist today, used these specialized ‘teeth’ plates to crush the shells of their favorite prey.  It may have shared the waters with some of this fossilized coral, of which we’ve excavated only a few tiny pieces that are as yet unidentified with regard to species.

We also uncover quite a bit of petrified wood.  These trees would have lived during the periods of the Cretaceous when Virginia was a hot and humid swamp.  After falling into the waters, they were covered and, over millions of years, petrified as the trees’ organic tissues were slowly replaced by minerals.  This example is our largest specimen.

Petrified wood excavated at Ferry Farm.

Crocodiles also swam where the George Washington’s boyhood home replica now stands when the land was covered in a warm, shallow sea.  We think the tooth pictured below belongs to one of those crocs, although likely a juvenile one.  Unlike a shark tooth, it is conical, with a depression at the top.

Crocodile tooth, like from a juvenile, found at Ferry Farm.

We’ll end with everyone’s favorite: shark teeth!  They’re the most common fossil found at Ferry Farm due in no small part to the fact that sharks continuously shed their teeth throughout their lifetime. Some sharks go through up to 50,000 teeth in their lifetimes!  Most of our shark teeth belong to a species of sand tiger shark, which still exists today (they’re also called the gray nurse shark).  Starting at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era, approximately 66 million years ago, sand tiger sharks swam near the coast in the warm shallow sea waters that covered this part of Virginia.  Their teeth are not large, but quite numerous. They have a distinctive shape with a long very ‘pointy’ crown, small sharp bumps called cusplets on either side, and relatively long root lobes.  The only shark’s tooth we have that doesn’t resemble the sand tiger at all is one we think may be from a species of white shark (related to the great white).

Sand tiger shark teeth excavated at Ferry Farm.
Possible giant white shark’s tooth excavated at Ferry Farm.

Even though archaeologists do not dig for dinosaurs, we certainly do find fossils in our excavations. Since we are obsessively focused on the human cultures of the past, these fossils are not our primary interest. We do not dig for dinosaurs but maybe we actually do sort of DIG them and all fossils from ancient times in a “Wow, fossils are really cool!” sort of way.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Spot the Differences: Tools of the Trade

The end of the 2020 dig season at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm last October required we tidy up of all our tools used during the excavation.  We cleaned and stored away the multiple shovels, trowels, and wheel barrels used at the site and hauled the sifting screens back to the shed. We also securely covered the individual features and the overall site with tarp to protect them from the winter weather and roaming animals. The very last bit of cleaning was in the lab – sorting through all our toolboxes and restocking them for the next season.

Our photo illustrates the wide variety of tools we used every day in the field as we dug and recorded our findings. Can you spot fifteen differences between the two photos below? Click on each photo to enlarge it. The first photo is the original while the second photo has been altered in 15 ways.

Original photo
Altered photo

See what changes were made here.

Appearance is Everything: Mary Washington and Her Specialized Ceramics of Gentility – Some Seriously Fancy Dishes!

The story of Mary Ball Washington is one of overcoming a lifetime of adversity.  Often overshadowed by her larger than life son George, Mary’s place in history fluctuated from saint to shrew with many historians ignoring the obstacles she faced and overcame.  The archaeological record sheds light on some of the strategies Mary used to navigate her way through mid-18th century life as a widow while trying to maintain her own social status and that of her children.  Fragments of highly-specialized ceramics excavated at Ferry Farm, the plantation Mary called home for much of her life, speaks to her efforts.

Specialized dishes are those designed for a very specific job unlike, say, a bowl which is multi-purpose.  We have uncovered evidence of many dishes Mary owned that fulfilled single tasks.  These type of ceramics are a sign of gentility. Most households could not afford these items and likely did not possess the resources to make the food and drink that they were designed to hold. 

As the 18th century progressed, so did dining habits. Increasingly, people of means gravitated toward dinners with multiple courses of entrees, appetizers, beverages, and deserts. Previously, most meals consisted of large one-pot creations with multiple ingredients.  In order to pull course cooking off, one required the specialized dishes designed for serving multiple courses. 

One prime example of such specialized dishes from Ferry Farm is Mary’s elaborately decorated creamware sauce boats.  The sauce boats are a luxury in and of themselves. They’re highly decorated and were very fashionable at the time.  Not only were they expensive, but they showed that Mary had the refinement to serve her guests the fancy sauces being introduced into colonial cooking.  They also indicated that she had a trained kitchen staff of enslaved workers capable of executing these new and intricate recipes. You never thought a sauce boat could hold so much meaning, did you?

Portion of a highly-decorated creamware sauce boat that belonged to Mary Washington.

Fragments of an extremely fancy white salt glazed fruit dish are further examples of Mary’s calculated purchasing of dishes.  Previously written about here and here, this dish was meant to display fruit, another luxury in the 18th century. Being able to afford non-local or out-of-season fruit was a status symbol and necessitated the proper dish to proudly display the fruit.  To put the rarity of fruit in perspective, in colonial America, pineapples were so expensive you could rent one for display at parties in the holiday season because most people couldn’t afford to buy one outright.  While renting a fruit may seem ridiculous to modern readers, the action highlights just how important being seen to own certain items was during the colonial era. Of course, we still engage in this same behavior today, but just not with pineapples.

Fragments of a white salt-glazed fruit dish excavated at Ferry Farm and a complete example from the collection at Kenmore (above).

Ferry Farm archaeologists also excavated fragments of two creamware condiment dishes.  Once again, the ability to serve various condiments to dinner guests conveyed status.  Condiments could include relishes, dips, mustards, ketchups (mushroom ketchup being the preferred type), and pickled vegetables such as capers.  Castor sets were also a way to serve other condiments such as olive oil, vinegar, pepper, etc. Generally, these castor sets were only owned by well-to-do households in the colonial period. The base of a creamware castor was recovered at Ferry Farm.

Creamware castor base excavated at Ferry Farm.

The fact that so many of Mary’s specialized ceramics are made of creamware should also be noted.  Creamware was invented in 1762 and wasn’t the most expensive type of ceramic (that was porcelain) but it was highly fashionable.  Mary, as a widow with five children and a diminished income following her husband’s death, likely couldn’t afford much porcelain. She opted for the less expensive but still highly-desirable creamware, instead.

The Washington family went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to visiting friends, neighbors, and relatives.  At Ferry Farm, this burden fell solely on Mary after the death of her husband.  Her specialized ceramics served to illustrate her place within the gentry class despite her diminished income and refusal to remarry after being widowed.  Her goal was to remain independent while raising five children to be successful adults and members of the Virginia gentry class.  In doing so, she likely realized that the socioeconomic security of her children would ensure her own into the future as well. Consequently, it was important that Mary cultivate a refined household with appropriate table and teawares. Ceramic artifacts from Ferry Farm reveal a woman who carefully selected choice ceramics to perform very specific tasks, while at the same time not overextending her budget.  These ceramics contributed to her goal of remaining a part of the gentry class and teaching her children genteel habits so they could do the same. It was a task in which she overwhelmingly succeeded.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

We Really Dig History!: 2020 Excavation at Ferry Farm

After a delay of five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, archaeological excavations in the Washington house work yard at George Washington’s Ferry Farm got underway in mid-August and finished on October 30.  Despite the cancellation of a planned spring field school with archaeological students from the University of South Florida, a crew of four paid interns and two college students helped make up the labor difference and our work commenced.

Our 2020 project continued last year’s exploration of the Washington-era work yard.  This area located to the east of the house is where the everyday activities of a busy colonial household took place.  Permanent structures such as a kitchen, dairy, smokehouse, storage sheds, office, laundry, temporary workspaces, and landscape features like gardens were concentrated in this area near the house but out of view of the public eye and the formal riverfront side of the house. Evidence of these buildings and work areas, in conjunction with the trash generated from their associated daily activities, is of the utmost importance in our planned authentic recreation of Ferry Farm’s Washington-era landscape. 

Location of the 2019-2020 archaeological dig.

In addition to reopening the unfinished 2019 excavation site, we opened fourteen new 5 foot x 5 foot units directly north, revealing a total of 800 square feet. Our approach to excavating was the same as in previous years – remove the 20th century layers, then the 19th century layers, and so on, across the entire site, allowing us to view related features at the same time.

2019 and 2020 excavation site.
Visitors to the site interact with the excavators.

We uncovered numerous new features dating from the 20th century back into prehistoric Native American times. Modern gas and electric lines crisscrossed the site on their way to a now-demolished early 20th century house. They cut through multiple historic layers and sometimes through intact earlier features.  Eighteenth century features we excavated included a large, circular, flat-bottomed pit, 5 feet in diameter. The pit’s purpose is still under investigation. A 10-foot long linear feature, obviously related to last year’s still unknown Features 274 and 275, was also found just to their northwest, adding to their mystery.

Feature 285 – Historic large circular pit with a 5’ diameter
Feature 283 – Historic linear feature, similar to Features 274 and 275 found in 2019
2019 Features 274 and 275

An especially exciting discovery this year was uncovering a large post mold and post hole in the southern end of the site.  The posthole indicates the presence of a post-in-ground structure and excavations next year will try to reveal more of this building. Adding another outbuilding to the Washington landscape would be very exciting.

Feature 288 – Post mold and Posthole located at southern edge of the site

Hundreds of artifacts, of course, were collected during our three-month dig, including wig curler fragments, Native American projectile points, and Civil War bullets. We also found lots of historic ceramics and glass and architectural items, including this stoneware pot base fragment wrapped within a large tree root pictured below. 

Stoneware fragment encased within a root.
A sample of artifacts found one day ranging in age from the 21st century to the Prehistoric era.
One of eighteen wig curlers found during this year’s dig.

The upcoming winter months will be spent washing and cataloging all the artifacts recovered across the site, drawing the features and site maps, and writing reports. The site is securely covered for the season and will wait for us until the next dig starts, hopefully in the spring.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

How to Do Archaeology During a Pandemic

Like so many of you, in the middle of March this year, nearly all employees of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore began working from home and did not return to our offices for two and a half months.  We expected a lengthy time away and, as such, prepared as best we could for the change.  For some departments, the change mainly involved figuring out access to digital files but, since our jobs revolve around physical artifacts, we archaeologists had to do a little improvising.

The ‘wet lab’ where artifacts are washed before cataloging and analysis sits quietly unused at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

First, while it’s normally not a “best practice” to take artifacts home, we really had no choice if we were going to remain productive.  This meant I as archaeology lab supervisor and that Elyse and Judy, archaeology lab technicians , all had to create what essentially amounted to an a archaeology lab in each of our homes.  Elyse and Judy need space to wash, label, and catalogue artifacts while I needed space to analyze artifacts while simultaneously keeping them away from my extremely inquisitive preschooler! I mostly succeeded in that last task. Elyse actually enlisted the help of her older and amazing daughter June with washing artifacts.  As so many of us found out in 2020, working and parenting from home is not easy but Elyse and I adapted well, I think.

Elyse Adams, archaeology lab technician, and her daughter June wash artifacts at home.

It should also be noted, however, that keeping artifacts away from all of our many, many dogs and cats proved challenging as well.   While my cats were thrilled (well, as thrilled as cats can get, at least) that I was home all day, they were occasionally of the opinion that the Washington-era porcelain sherds I was researching looked much better on the floor.

Despite these challenges, we got the job done and eventually returned to the lab at Ferry Farm having accomplished quite a bit.

Life inside Ferry Farm’s archaeology lab looks quite different now, too, compared to this time in 2019. Since the lab is relatively close quarters, we instituted a rigorous cleaning schedule, spaced our work areas out as much as possible, and started taking temperatures every day.  Our beloved volunteers have not come back (Shout out to our volunteers! You guys are awesome!) because we needed to limit the number of people working in the lab to only myself, Elyse, and Judy.

One of the coolest features of our lab is the huge viewing window through which visitors could see real live archaeologists at work.  While Ferry Farm is now open to the public for tours, the visitor center remains closed and there’s no longer any inquisitive folks peering at us through the glass. It’s a surprisingly lonely feeling not to glance up from our work occasionally to see visitors watching what we’re doing.  We also put a temporary halt on lab tours that we do occasionally during special events or children’s camps at Ferry Farm.  Both of these changes are a bummer because we really liked the interaction we had with visitors. That being said, we’re optimistic that someday life will return to normal eventually and we’ll be able to share our lab with the public once again.  When that time does finally comes, please visit and check out the archaeology lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. We miss you!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

We’re Digging!: A Preview of This Year’s Archaeology Excavation at Ferry Farm

It’s that time of year again!

Actually, it’s past that time of year but better late than never! The annual summer archaeological dig at George Washington’s Ferry Farm – delayed like so many other things by the COVID-19 pandemic – has finally begun!  Ferry Farm’s summer archaeological excavation has become a fall dig too as it runs from August to October this year, instead of in the more typical April to July window.

In 2019, we began excavating a 30 foot by 30 foot square in the work yard in search of outbuildings from George Washington’s time. We know there was a kitchen, slave quarters, store houses, barns, and other buildings on the farm, but we have yet to locate them all. Without these outbuildings, which will eventually be reproduced like the Washington House, we can’t accurately represent what the landscape looked like during George’s childhood.

Archaeologists Lizzie O’Meara and Frank Amico cleaning last year’s dig area for the final photo of 2019.

Last year, we were tasked with excavating the 30 foot by 30 foot area, where we suspect there are still remains of and artifacts from undiscovered buildings. We completed about half of the total area. We dug the soil level down to the colonial-era level in half of our square before we had to close for the year. We also lost a few weeks of time last summer because of the nearly 2 feet of gravel that first needed to be removed. You read that right. 2 FEET! This gravel was from the construction of the Washington house replica in 2017 was leveled directly on top of the area where we needed to excavate.

This summer, we begin the other half of the 30 foot by 30 foot square. We are very excited to continue to dig this area.

Last year we excavated thousands of amazing artifacts including several Washington era wig curlers, Civil War bullets, and Native American projectile points of all shapes and sizes. You can read about last year’s discoveries here.

If visit Ferry Farm during the next several weeks, you can watch us dig on weekdays. My fellow archaeologists and I will be happy to talk with you (while masked and at a 6-foot distance) about our excavation work and some of our recent discoveries.  There will also be occasional updates on the excavation’s progress on our Facebook and Instagram. Then, after the conclusion of the 2020 excavation, watch this space for a summary of our work!

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director