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

The Unlikely Curator: What a Rodent’s Nest Reveals about Historic Kenmore

Rodents are usually seen as one of a museum’s greatest enemies. They damage valuable artifacts and buildings, leave a mess wherever they go, and frighten unsuspecting visitors. Like most museums, Historic Kenmore does its best to make sure no pests make their home in the 18th century plantation house. But, before it became a museum in the early 20th century, Kenmore was not always rodent-free.

Kenmore's East Portico

The east portico of Historic Kenmore shows some neglect to the house and its surroundings. The Howard family, who lived in Kenmore for a long period following the Civil War and was perhaps living in the house when our rodent of interest built its nest, invested a lot of money in refurbishing the house.

In 1989, archaeologists found a mouse or rat’s nest during an investigation of Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. In a recent video, our archeologists and curators carefully picked apart the nest found so long ago and made a cursory analysis of its parts.  This blog post delves more deeply into the history revealed by this rodent – Kenmore’s unlikely curator – and its nest.

The “indoor excavation” at Kenmore in 1989 provided present-day archaeologists at the Foundation a unique opportunity to study artifacts that rarely survive in the elements. Whatever rodent built this nest was a skilled architect in its own right, tightly weaving together bits of cloth, paper, and miscellaneous fluff from around the house to create a soft, structurally sound home of its own. The material came from dozens of sources, each giving insight to life at Kenmore in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Fabric

Patterned fabric from the nest

When it comes to fabrics, both the people living at Kenmore and the rodent had pretty good taste. While most of the cloth from the nest was a neutral white, beige, or brown, several scraps featured patterns popular from the late 19th through the early 20th century, like a red cloth with cream specks, and another with red and yellow flowers. Most of the cloth in the nest probably came from sheets, towels, or rags, but the few patterned scraps may have once been part of a dress or apron. A few threads are woven around a stiff, curved string, perhaps as part of an eyelet or fastener on a piece of clothing.  Other fibers came from webbing used in upholstering furniture. The rest of the threads, yarn, and fibers are too small to tell where they came from, but it’s clear that the resident rodent had plenty of textiles from which to choose.

Newspaper 1

A series of newspaper ads includes a date of September 6, 1877.

Newspaper 2

A scrap of a cartoon features an old man carrying what appears to be a baby.

A few other gnawings in the nest were less comfortable than threads and cloth. A bit of nutshell, wood splinters, tiny rib bones, and even two insect wings were part of the rodent’s eclectic collection. While these finds make up a small portion of the nest, it appears that the rodent had quite a literary bent. Over a hundred tiny scraps of paper lined the nest. About half of them were marked, while the others have print from books and newspapers. Some of the pieces are so small that not even an entire letter can be seen, but a few are large enough to make out some sentences, determine date of publication, or even identify the book from which the scrap came.

Newspaper 3

A section entitled “Recent Inventions” includes a convertible handbag and seat patented in 1915.

Newspaper 4

An advertisement on the opposite side of the newspaper discusses Christmas Savings funds from Farmers and Merchants State Bank.

One newspaper scrap advertises Christmas saving funds from the Farmer’s and Merchant’s State Bank. On the other side under “Recent Inventions,” Katherine Minehart’s “Combined Hand-bag and Seat” from 1915 is described. A much earlier bit of newspaper announces the opening of a store on September 6, 1877. The scrap from a book may be even older. The words on both sides are Christian lyrics, and were compiled into a book called Union Hymns by the American Sunday School Union. The book and several editions were published in 1835, 1845, and 1860.

Given the short lifespan of most rodents (around 1-7 years), it’s most likely that the nest builder lived in the early 20th century, and scampered off with bits and pieces of discarded old paper and fabric. Except for a few newspapers, this rodent tended to use items with a past. The absence of any plastic in the nest indicates that it probably wasn’t built much past the early 1900s.  Indeed, since the latest scrap found in the nest dated from 1915, the nest itself would have been built in that year or thereafter, just a few years before the house began its transformation into a museum focusing on the lives of 18th century patriots Betty and Fielding Lewis.

The stories of those who lived at Kenmore after the Civil War are not as detailed, but thanks to an unlikely curator, we are given a glimpse into the wardrobes and literary tastes of Kenmore’s late Victorian-era inhabitants.

Abby Phelps, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

An Unlikely Curator: Inside a Historic Rodent’s Nest [Video]

In this video, we pick apart a rodent’s nest discovered by archaeologists investigating Historic Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. Like most museums, we take extensive pest prevention measures today but, back when it was an actual home, Kenmore was not always rodent-free. This nest revealed some fascinating history and told us a bit about Kenmore itself.

(NOTE: The video was filmed long before COVID-19 physical distancing requirements.)

I Spy: Sewing

Sewing was an important and necessary skill that all girls in the 18th century learned from a young age.  A family’s clothing, bed and table linens, and other items made of fabric were in constant need of repair. These repairs and other sewing tasks were considered women’s work. Along with practical applications, sewing skills included fancier needlework used to make decorative luxuries.

To showcase these artistic needlework skills, girls and young women made samplers. One tool used to make such samplers was a special embroidery hook called a tambour hook. One of these hooks was found by archaeologists in the remains of the Washington house at Ferry Farm. Young Betty Washington probably used this special tool, made of a bone handle and a portion of a steel hook, to add decorative touches to fine needlework projects.

Tambour Hook

Tambour hook used for neddlework excavated by archaeologists from the reamains of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Using the picture and list below to find sewing-related artifacts excavated at Ferry Farm!​ Click on the image to enlarge.

Sewing I Spy

Sewing tools

Can you find these artifacts?

  • 3 gold military buttons
  • 2 ‘hook & eye’ hooks
  • 6 thimbles
  • A black button with a star
  • 3 pair of scissors
  • 7 button blanks (one hole)
  • 13 buckles
  • 2 sets of cufflinks
  • A wooden tambour hook handle