When Games are Serious Business: Chunkey

Sometimes games are just fun but sometimes games can make you or break you. This is the case with chunkey, a Native American game.  Invented around 600 AD by indigenous peoples of the Cahokia region (near modern day St. Louis, Missouri), chunkey was a popular game that spread across much of North America.  There were variations in the rules, depending on the cultures playing it, but the basic premise was that a large ground stone disc (a chunkey) was rolled across a level field by a player. One or multiple players from the opposing side would then throw sticks (also called chunkey) underhanded at the stone, aiming to get as close as possible or to touch the stone once it stopped rolling.  Chunkey stones took time to make, were considered valuable, and were often communal property of a village.

Although the game could be played casually, Chunkey tournaments were a big deal with much pageantry and costumes, often drawing people from far away to participate and watch.  Think of it as an ancient Super Bowl.  Gambling was common at these events with players risking everything, including their honor, on the outcome.  Reportedly some unfortunate defeated players killed themselves after a loss.

Chunkey continued to be played after Europeans arrived in North America and was subsequently documented by some who frequented the events.  However, sometime in the mid-19th century, the game lost favor, likely as a result of the decimation of indigenous cultures by those same Europeans.

“Tchung-kee, a Mandan Game Played with a Ring and Pole” (1832-3) by George Catlin depicts Native Americans playing chunkey. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

This brings us to the chunkey stone excavated at Ferry Farm.  Visitors who see it immediately note that it looks like a stone doughnut.  Personally I believe it to be one of our coolest artifacts.

Chunkey stone excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Oddly enough, this chunkey was found suspiciously close to three other prehistoric artifacts, not all of which belong on an archaeological site in Virginia.  Two stone axes and an odd bead were recovered right next to the chunkey in soils that were plowed which caused the mixing of artifacts from different time periods.  The axes date to the late archaic period (3,000 BCE – 1,000 BC) while the chunkey stone, as stated above is thousands of years younger.  Additionally, the bead, which is still a bit of a mystery, is a type of sandstone not found in Virginia.

So does this mean that indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago were playing chunkey on a site that would eventually be George Washington’s home?  Maybe…but maybe not.  When you add all of these factors together it starts to look more and more like these items were collected in the historic period and did not necessarily belong to any tribes living at Ferry Farm. The English and their colonists were prodigious collectors of natural and Native American artifacts.  Famous colonial collectors include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The chunkey stone and these other Native American artifacts are still very cool finds but definitely a reminder that removing artifacts from their original location without preserving their context greatly limits how archaeologists can interpret them.  And, in this case, may throw archaeologists a bit of a curve ball …er, a curve chunkey!

Play a version of chunkey during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Technology at Ferry Farm on Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm.  For more details, visit kenmore.org.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

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Experimental Archaeology: Making Cordage [Video]

In this video, archaeologist Mara Kaktins demonstrates how Native Americans used plant fibers to make rope.

See other experimental archaeology demonstrations during “ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Technology” at George Washington’s Ferry Farm on Saturday, October 26. For event details, visit here.

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.

Porcelain (2)

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.

Porcelain (3)

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.

Porcelain (4)

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.

Porcelain (5)

Hand painted partial teacup with scalloped rim.

Porcelain (6)

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.

Porcelain (7)

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

I Spy: Toys & Games from the 18th to the 20th Centuries

Toys Board (27)cropped darker shadows

Editor’s Note: The toys and games shown in this I Spy photo, which include artifacts recovered by our archaeologists, are now on display in the Visitor Center at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  On your next visit, be sure to see if you can find all the toy and game artifacts on our I Spy list!  In the meantime, read further to learn a bit about how children played in the past and see if you can find the artifacts in the photo listed at the end.

Children in the 1600s and early 1700s were thought of and treated like miniature adults, but in the 1800s, children were regarded as distinct from adults.  They were thought to need a special time to grow and learn and were seen as innocent and unspoiled by the harshness of the adult world.  “Play” was designed to teach boys and girls about specific gender roles they would later adopt in adult society.

Porcelain Doll Parts and Tea Set:

Girls have always been encouraged to play with dolls and tea sets.  The forms and materials have changed over time, but these miniature toys have always been used to introduce little girls to adult tasks and responsibilities. “Baby” dolls (that looked like babies) were not produced until after 1850.

Marbles:

Marbles are the most common toys found in North American historical archaeological sites. 18th century marbles were clay, and could range from gray to brown in color depending on impurities in the clay used. Glass marbles were manufactured, primarily in Germany, beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Dice:

Several different games were played with dice in the 18th century as well as today. Instead of plastic, 18th-century dice were made of bone, ivory, or – like ours pictured here- wood.

Other Games:

The 20th century saw a massive increase in the number of toys produced as costs came down and as children became a focus of marketing campaigns. Board games were, and still are, a large part of the toy world. While “Checkers” has been around since 3000 BC, “Mousetrap” has not, but both are now produced with plastic.

Can you find these artifacts in the photo above?

  • 4 monkeys escaped from a barrel
  • 9 porcelain doll parts
  • 13 marbles- 12 clay and 1 glass
  • An airplane
  • 8 “Hi-Ho Cherry-O” cherries
  • 2 and ½ checkers
  • A broken 3-piece tea set
  • A “Sorry” piece
  • A jeep
  • A broken die made of wood
  • A yellow toy car hood
  • A metal dagger
  • A mouse that is not yet trapped
  • A rider-less motorcycle

*Bonus- A lost monkey arm

Ferry Farm’s Oldest Artifact

Many visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm are surprised to learn that about a quarter of the 750,000 artifacts excavated by Ferry Farm’s archaeologists were created by Native Americans. However, given that indigenous people were living in the land we call Virginia for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, it makes perfect sense. The vast majority of these Native American artifacts are stone flakes that are the byproduct of stone tool manufacture (think sawdust or wood shavings from carpentry, but stone) and date to the Archaic period (or 10,000–3,200 years before the present day). A very few are even older. In fact, Ferry Farm’s oldest datable artifact is the basal fragment of an ancient jasper dart point made by a people belonging to what we call the Clovis culture.

Clovis points from Iowa's Rummells-Maske Site

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site in Iowa. These are in the collection of the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist. Credit: Bill Whittaker / Wikipedia

The Clovis culture were some of the earliest inhabitants of North America, and was named after the Clovis “type site” (an archaeological site where a certain culture or artifact type is first recognized) near the town of Clovis, New Mexico. The Clovis people made distinctive projectile points immediately recognizable by their lanceolate or narrow oval shape that tapers to a point at one end and the presence of “flutes” on their bases. These flutes are narrow channels where flakes of stone were carefully removed from both sides of the point to make it thinner. The fluted point could then easily be slid into a notched wooden or bone shaft- a process called hafting- to make a knife or dart (more on darts below). The sides of the point would be ground near the base to dull them so the point could be secured in its haft with sinew or cordage without cutting through these bindings.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point

Base or Proximal end of a Jasper Clovis point recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point diagram

The Clovis people were well known for being picky about their lithic (stone) materials and traveled long distances to procure them. The closest quarry from which they could have obtained jasper to make Ferry Farm’s point is in Culpeper, at least 35 miles away. The people who made this dart point may have manufactured it here as we also have numerous flakes of this same jasper.

Jasper Flakes

Jasper flakes similar to the material of the Clovis point — a byproduct of stone tool manufacture — that were excavated at Ferry Farm.

Clovis points date to a fairly narrow period from roughly 13,500 to about 12,800 years ago, and are found almost everywhere in North America, from the Southwest to New England. One of the interesting things about Clovis culture is that it is so widespread- no later cultures made artifacts that are found across such a vast area. It’s even more interesting to consider that these points got deposited all across North America in such a relatively short time span of maybe 700 years. This begs the question: What moved? Was it the people making the Clovis points? Or was it the technique of making the Clovis points? Was there a particular group of fluted-point-making people sprinting across the North American or were there already enough people on the pre-Clovis landscape that it the idea of making fluted points just spread from group to group? Archaeologists are working to answer these questions.

As mentioned, one use for Clovis points were in darts. These darts were not like you throw at a dartboard in a bar. In this context, a dart is like a spear but with a more flexible and lightweight shaft that can fly farther and with greater velocity. Greater distance and speed are achieved by launching the dart with a spear thrower called an atlatl (pronounced “at-lattle”). The atlatl essentially acts as an extension of the arm, creating a longer lever that pushes the dart farther and faster by applying more force with less energy. Although Clovis points were probably multi-purpose tools used as both knives and projectile points. As projectile points, they were likely used on atlatl darts for hunting. Although the extent to which Clovis people relied on meat from such huge creatures is debatable, they probably used their fluted points to bring down a few mammoths and mastodons, at least in the western United States.

What do you think the owner of the Ferry Farm Clovis point was doing with theirs when they lost it? We may never know, but what we do know is that it gives us evidence that people were living along the Rappahannock River nearly 13,000 years ago. We can still find their tools and those tools piece together the whole story of Ferry Farm’s landscape and people!

Joseph Blondino, Archaeologist
Field Director, Dovetail Cultural Resource Group

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor, The George Washington Foundation