Chock Full o’ Minie Balls: A Civil War Mystery

Old, crushed, and rusted food cans in and of themselves aren’t terribly interesting, at least not to me.  But when the can contains 150-year-old bullets, it becomes very interesting indeed.  Recently, while going through our artifact collection database, I came across an item excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly 20 years ago and simply listed as a ‘can’.  Wanting to know the exact nature of this can (Was it a food can? Was it a paint can?), I looked at the database’s comments section, which sometimes describes an artifact in more detail.  The comment read:  “Smashed can containing Minié balls.”  Now this can had my full attention!  I had the can pulled from artifact storage and was not disappointed.  It was, as advertised, a flattened can with at least 3 visible Minié balls lodged inside. Furthermore, there was something not visible rattling around inside of it.  Because it had simply been cataloged as a ‘can’, it escaped the notice of our crack team of research archaeologists for two decades.  I began investigating!

Flattened Can Containing Minie Balls 1

Flattened can containing Minié balls excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

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The end of Minié ball sticking out of the can.

First, I wanted to know the age of the can.  I knew the Minié balls dated to a little over 150 years ago when Union soldiers were stationed at Ferry Farm during the Civil War. The can, however, may have been from a later date.  In oral histories, people who lived at Ferry Farm in the 20th century have mentioned collecting Civil War bullets in cans so my initial assumption was that this was the forgotten treasure of a relic hunter.  The next step was to examine the other artifacts recovered with the can at the same time and in the same spot on the Ferry Farm landscape.  All of these artifacts were from the mid-19th century.  Furthermore, the can was excavated from smack dab in the middle of a Civil War trench that runs across Ferry Farm.  So the can and the bullets were from the same time period.

Minie Balls

Various types of Minié balls from left to right: .577 Enfield Minié Bullet, Burton Pattern Minié Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minié Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

But the can didn’t look anything like a typical cartridge box.  It looked like a run of the mill tinned food can and what was rattling around inside?  It was time to do some science!  I took the can to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where their awesome conservator Katherine Ridgway was kind enough to x-ray the can.  The x-rays proved the can was a food can and that the rattling object inside was another Minié ball.

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X-ray images of can containing Minié balls. Credit: Katherine Ridgeway / Virginia Department of Historic Resources

While we now know a lot more about our can now, one mystery still remains. Why did a soldier store some of his bullets in a can?  What we do know is that, at some point, the can was abandoned or forgotten at the bottom of the trench and then crushed either under a boot or by the weight of the dirt once the trench was filled in after the war.  A 150 year old moment in time captured in the archaeological record.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

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Some Like it Hot …But Probably Not This Hot: The Archaeology of a (BIG!) Fire

Twenty years ago, archaeologists digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm unearthed the remains of a mid-eighteenth century kitchen.  It was immediately obvious from the state of the artifacts that this kitchen had not simply fallen into to ruin and been abandoned – it had burned down.  While this is fairly interesting in and of itself, a reexamination of the kitchen fire artifacts this year revealed surprising information about the intensity of the fire.

Map of Kitchen Site

Overhead image of George Washington’s Ferry Farm showing location of the kitchen that burnt down in the 18th century. Credit: Google

What first struck us was the sheer density of artifacts in this kitchen. We recovered A LOT of artifacts.  Furthermore, these broken sherds could be mended to form almost whole bottles, crocks, jugs, pans, and such.  The number of artifacts and the fact they could be put together to form entire objects tell us that the Washington family and their slaves did not have much, if any, time to salvage what was inside the burning kitchen.  Food, wine bottles, food storage and preparation vessels and utensils, furniture, and more all destroyed exactly where they stood.  Think of this kitchen as a mini Pompeii or Titanic. Just about everything that the Washington’s had in their kitchen went down with the ship and was still there, just squished and burned.

A preserved moment in time like this fire is a great opportunity for archaeologists to study the Washingtons but it comes with one big problem—most of the artifacts were totally cooked and absolutely toasted beyond recognition in some cases.  Soft metal artifacts made from lead and copper, for example, were reduced to melted blobs by the fire.  Ceramic vessels appear to have exploded from the heat and were reduced to blackened sherds.  Some of the glass bottles survived with a minimal amount of warping from heat but the majority were melted or even burned in a process called ‘devitrification’.  And oddly enough there was very little animal bone, which is usually ubiquitous in kitchens found archaeologically.

To put the intensity of this kitchen fire in context here are some quick statistics (in Fahrenheit):

  • Lead melts at 621.4 degrees.
  • According to the National Institute of Fire and Safety Training, the average modern house fire tops out at around 1,100 degrees.
  • 1,400-1,800 degrees is the temperature at which bone will be destroyed
  • Copper melts at 1,984 degrees
  • Glass melts between 2,600 and 2,800 degrees.

Since the Washington kitchen fire was hot enough to actually burn glass, not just melt it, we’re looking at a fire that likely exceeded 2,800 degrees.  That’s incredible!  It also explains why there was so little animal bone recovered. Most bone was probably completely destroyed by the flames.

Extremely Burned Tin Glaze

Extremely burned tin glaze ceramic recovered from the kitchen site at Ferry Farm.

Devitrified Glass

Devitrified glass from the burnt Washington kitchen

Melted Cooper Alloy

Melted copper alloy excavated from the Ferry Farm kitchen

Blob of Lead Alloy

Blobs of lead alloy recovered from the kitchen site

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Slightly burned wine bottle from the kitchen

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A second slightly burned wine bottle

So, how on earth did the fire get that hot?  We’ll probably never know, unfortunately.  Some possible explanations may be the environmental conditions at the time of the blaze – a hot dry day with high winds could produce a perfect storm for a wooden kitchen to turn into an inferno.  The fire also may have started at night when few people were awake to notice and try to put it out, although presumably the kitchen housed enslaved people, as was common for that time period.  Another culprit may have been what was kept in the kitchen.  There were dozens of wine bottles in there. While we call them ‘wine’ bottles today, they were actually all-purpose vessels that held any kind of spirituous liquid including harder alcohol like gin, whiskey, and rum, which are highly combustible.  Animal products such as lard, tallow, beeswax, and even whale oil for lamps were likely stored in the kitchen and all burn quite well for long periods of time.

Regardless of the fire’s cause, it is clear from archaeological evidence that it happened quickly because not much within the structure could be saved, if anything.  We also know that it burned extremely hot and for a sustained period of time in order to have caused so much damage to the items within.

Finally, perhaps, the last and the biggest mystery is where the replacement kitchen was located.  Kitchens were almost all outbuildings because, as you may have deduced, they tended to catch on fire easily.  A colonial household absolutely required a kitchen, however, and another would have been built almost immediately. Somewhere on the landscape at Ferry Farm, there is another kitchen waiting to be discovered archaeologically.

In the meantime, The George Washington Foundation plans to reconstruct the original Washington era kitchen so visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of an eighteenth century kitchen, minus the blazing inferno, of course.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Archaeologists Dig History! [Photos]

This summer out on the dig site, one of our archaeology interns sometimes wore a t-shirt that read “archaeologist (n): one who digs history.” In this album, you’ll see this year’s excavation crew — field director Steve Lenik, assistant field director Elyse Adams, interns Reagan Andersen, Cheyenne Johnson, and Aileen Kelly, and field school students from Georgia Southern University and the University of South Florida — doing just that!

Read a summary of the work done during the 2018 dig at Ferry Farm here.

We Really Dig History!: This Summer’s Excavations at Ferry Farm

Archaeological excavations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm have occurred nearly every summer since The George Washington Foundation purchased the property in 1996. The summer of 2017, when the majority of the replica Washington house construction was underway, was the major exception. The archaeological site was proved too close to ongoing construction so excavations were put on hold until the summer of 2018.

This year, a five person crew consisting of a field director Steve Lenik, assistant field director Elyse Adams, and interns Reagan Andersen, Cheyenne Johnson, and Aileen Kelly worked from April to July on the Ferry Farm property. For five weeks, an additional seven students from Georgia Southern University and the University of South Florida came to Ferry Farm for a field school, to learn the basics of excavation and lab work.

The North Yard

Historic AreaN

We investigated two areas.  The first, an area at the crest of the ridge to the north of the replica house, was the North Yard.  This yard lies between the Washington House and a slave quarter that was completely excavated in previous years. The purpose of digging in this area was to find evidence about who controlled this space. Was it the domain of those who lived in the Washington House or of the enslaved population who lived in the quarter?

Excavations are not yet complete in this area, but we discovered that this space was relatively clean compared to the Work Yard and areas immediately behind the Washington house, where a lot of trash and debris from daily 18th century activities were found during past excavations. The lack of trash and debris in the North Yard was likely because, in colonial times, this was part of the property visible from Fredericksburg and therefore was well-kept  A public space like this one would have likely fallen under the control of those who lived in the Washington house.

North Yard Excavating

Field school students excavating the North Yard.

We were also looking for evidence of any other outbuildings and gardens, in order to accurately recreate the landscape of the farm as it was in the 1700s. We discovered evidence of large trees that lived on the landscape during the 18th century in this area. This discovery will allow archaeologists to look even closer into the use of this space with the goal of re-creating it as it was in the time of the Washingtons.

The Work Yard

Historic AreaW

The second area we investigated during this summer’s dig was behind the Washington house in the Work Yard, which is exactly what it sounds like—a space for work to be done on a farm in the 1700s. This space is special to our research here at Ferry Farm.  Much of this space was excavated already in past years, yielded a treasure trove of artifacts and information, and was then filled back in once excavations were complete.

One small area just behind the house was left to excavate, however, and that’s where we worked this summer.  We discovered large stains in the soil, very deep in the ground.  They were made during the colonial era but, as yet, we do not know why.  This area was originally thought to be a cellar, but as excavations continued, we began to notice a series of pits instead.  Analysis is still ongoing and artifacts excavated in this space are still being processed so we don’t have answers to any of our questions yet.

Work Yard Excavating

Field crew exposing the large soil stain of possible cellar at the start of the 2018 excavations.

Work Yard Features

Final photo of the Work Yard pits at the end of the 2018 excavations.

Nevertheless, our minds were racing with possible explanations of these pits and we couldn’t help but wonder if they were somehow related to Ferry Farm’s collection of at least 215 wig curlers—very unusual finds for a Virginia farm—that were excavated above or around this space.

It’s far too soon to tell, we don’t have any complete answers, and we still aren’t finished excavating the Work Yard, but this area already is proving important to the Ferry Farm story. Once we understand the landscape and complete the Work Yard excavations, the 18th century outbuildings that have been identified and that once stood in this space will be replicated just like the main house.

Archaeology Team

The dig team! (l-r) Reagan Andersen, Cheyenne Johnson, Aileen Kelly, Steve Lenik, Elyse Adams

Future excavations will continue to yield the information we need to replicate the entire boyhood landscape of George Washington’s home. Every bit of information, no matter how small the tree root or how tiny the artifact, is pertinent to the understanding and accurate interpretation of this important landscape, and to understanding the lives of all who have lived and worked here. We look forward to many more years of discovery, and many more summers of digging into the history of the Washington Farm.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Assistant Field Director

The Tale of the “Black Dogg”

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The heavily worn coin, known as a “black dogg” and pictured above, is a unique archaeological find at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. It was originally circulated in the French Caribbean and certainly traveled some distance to find its way to British Virginia.  The coin may have traveled this distance in the pocket of a sailor whose ship first visited the West Indies, as the Caribbean islands were known in the 1700s, and then docked at Fredericksburg to unload its cargo.  Fredericksburg was a port town in the 18th century and marked the furthest point up the Rappahannock River that small ocean-going vessels could travel before encountering rapids.  These sailing vessels were a familiar sight to the Washington family as they looked down upon the river from their home atop the bluff (Read this blog post about a Fredericksburg ship’s voyage around the Atlantic in 1732).

The coin’s poor condition is a tribute in part to how popular it was as currency. Some black doggs featured a high pewter content. Their darker color, when compared to other coinage of the time, is how they came to be called black dogs or black doggs in the British colonies. British colonists used the term generally to refer to non-British, small change coinage that came from the West Indies.  It was not a complimentary term, and these coins were typically the lowest value available.

While the French government provided coinage for its Caribbean colonies, hard currency proved difficult to come by for these islanders. French Caribbean coins such as our black dogg were widely circulated. An amalgam of copper and silver alloy coin bits, these debased silver coins provided much needed small change for remote colonies.

A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America (1755) by William Richard Seale

“A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America” (1755) by William Richard Seale. Credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library

In 1779, France issued a coin for their Caribbean islands featuring a crowned “C” in relief on the front. The reverse side was blank, and individual islands often elected to stamp them with initials emblematic of a particular island.

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The black dogg’s front featuring a barely visible crowned “C” in relief.

Although Ferry Farm’s black dogg is in poor condition given both its many years in the soil and its popularity while in use, the “SV” counter stamp is clear, and refers to the island of Saint Vincent. Saint Vincent was a prize the British Crown enjoyed after the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763. However in 1779, the year this coin was made, the French regained control of the island for a few years. Saint Vincent was eventually returned to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, which ended the hostilities between allies France and Spain and their adversary Britain that had resulted from the American War of Independence.

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The black dogg’s reverse featuring a stamped “SV” for Saint Vincent.

At the same time, this coin may be a counterfeit produced in England. Birmingham produced many counterfeit coins, which were sometimes referred to as “stampe” or “stampee.” Since a counterfeit coin possessed some silver content, it provided some value for its users, but it was not minted by a government.  Caribbean islanders were so desperate for hard currency that even coins that were easily recognized as counterfeit circulated freely, much to the dismay of colonial governments.

Correspondence of the time occasionally refers to people buying “a dogs worth” of a given product. In this context, “dog” referred to the currency used, not our four-legged friends. A dogs worth would represent a very small quantity. For poor people and the enslaved –  whose commerce involved trading or purchasing items of low value – coins worth a fraction of a pence were popular indeed.

Although the black dogg coin found at Ferry Farm was of little value in the 1700s, for us today, it is an excellent representation of the far-flung British empire and of a thriving global network of trade that even reached Fredericksburg and the Washington family at Ferry Farm.

If you’d like to learn more about 18th century coins and the colonial economy, watch the lecture “Credit and Coinage: The Economy of Colonial Virginia”.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

Archaeology Camp at Ferry Farm 2018 [Photos]

Last week, George Washington’s Ferry Farm hosted Archaeology Camp for ages 9-12.  From digging, washing, and mending “artifacts” that they “excavated” in educational mock digs at Ferry Farm, campers learned about the entire archaeology process and the importance of archaeology to history. They also visited the archaeology laboratory for a behind-the-scenes tour and learned about interpretation and conservation of artifacts and the recording of information. The camp culminated with each camper creating an artifact diorama to take home, along with a new-found knowledge of what is beneath their feet! Here are some photos of the camp.

The Mystery of the Mane Comb

Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, and other engine-driven devices, people of the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries used horses, mules, and other four-legged draft animals to transport themselves, pull their wagons and carriages, and help manage the chores of farm and rural life.

Just like the time and expense we currently spend on car, truck, and small engine maintenance to keep those running smoothly, an equal amount of attention is essential to keeping horses healthy, clean, and physically fit so that they can perform the tasks we ask of them. The process of grooming a horse not only improves the health of their skin, coat, hooves, mane, and tails but it also allows the groomer to notice any health issues or problems that aren’t apparent until seen up close.

A mane comb, an essential horse grooming tool, was excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm from an early nineteenth-century context. This rusty iron alloy comb is incomplete, measuring two inches high with a broken width of 1 ¼ inches.  The finished width might have been between 3 and 4 inches.  What makes this find interesting is that there is a decorative “G” inset above the comb’s teeth.  This letter was obviously followed by others, but what the complete word or initials indicate is a complete mystery.  Was the word a favorite horse’s name or just the name of the comb maker?  Was it actually a person’s name? And, of course, if it is a person name, could it possibly be George Washington’s name?

Mane comb

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Mane combs are just one piece in any essential grooming kit for horses, which also includes curry combs, brushes, hoof picks, and grooming cloths.  The mane comb is used to comb out the tangles and remove debris from the mane and tail of horses.  It can be very simple and utilitarian in looks, similar to a common hair comb, or more ornate and decorative, such as this example that is stored on a leather backing. Our mane comb falls between these two extremes. It does not have an elaborative top but it is still decorated within the handle area with a swirled scroll, raised beading along the outer band, and the letter “G–”.

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A simple modern mane comb. Credit: MyEquineStore.com

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A more ornate antique mane comb with decorative handle. Credit: Roger Jones & Co.

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A drawing of the mane comb excavated at Ferry Farm clearly showing the decorative inset “G”.

Ferry Farm archaeologists are curating a number of artifacts related to animal husbandry, an assemblage dominated by utilitarian buckles. Such buckles may have been part of harnesses but these fasteners had many uses around a farm. Horseshoes are the next most frequently recovered item, and they date from throughout the 1800s and 1900s. A few are of a style of manufacture that reliably derives from the colonial era. Bits, stirrups, curb chains, and harness rings were also lost or discarded by their owners. A mid-1800s iron alloy brace for a saddle was also discovered. Ferry Farm archaeologists found evidence for mules as well, as our collection includes a few mule shoes. A few bolts for carriages or wagons were recovered. Perhaps our favorite animal husbandry objects are the brass ornaments used to embellish leather horse tack. Several of these have been recovered and all date from the colonial period, when these early New World equestrians relished showing off their fine steeds.

So if there are any horse-loving readers out there who recognize this style of mane comb or have a clue as to what “G” could be the start of, please let us know.  We may never know but we do hope that maybe the “G” is the beginning of the name of our site’s most famous horseman, George, who was certainly well known for his horsemanship skills!

Juby Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director