The Flora and Fauna of Ferry Farm [Photos]

On a recent summer Saturday morning, a group of photographers came to George Washington’s Ferry Farm for a hike on the trails around the property. A lot of wildlife call Ferry Farm home, and we hoped to capture some of it. We saw many birds, a turtle, and a rabbit eating breakfast in the grass as well as plenty of beautiful flowers. Unfortunately, many animals – including the doe and fawn that have been spotted frequently on the property this year – seemed shy that morning, but we are planning another wild photography session at Ferry Farm in the fall.

If you’d like to explore wilds of Ferry Farm yourself, you can purchase a self-guided grounds only tour upon arrival at the Ferry Farm Visitor Center. Ferry Farm is currently open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday and from Noon to 5 p.m., Sunday.

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Information Technology

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

How the Enlightenment Transformed Cats into Pets

We look at our cats today as the furriest, purriest companions known to humankind. But most cats in colonial America worked for their status as the designated house cat.  It wasn’t all lazy days trying to squeeze into the smallest box possible or snoozing in that tiny sliver of sunlight on the living room floor. I’m a proud companion of a seven year-old fat cat named Jeffrey, who spends much of his time doing these very things.

Jeffery 1

Jeffrey in his favorite spot- the fruit bowl on the kitchen table.

Jeffery probably would not have enjoyed being a working cat in the past.  Don’t get me wrong, according to archaeologists; many civilizations have treated cats as companions for at least 8,000 years! But cats were often expected to serve a practical purpose, too. Along with companionship, cats were expected to work at jobs like pest control and to even serve as weapons.  This extreme version of work was proposed in an early German explosives and artillery manual that depicts a weaponized cat and bird set loose into an enemy town.

Weaponized Animals

From a “Treatise on munitions and explosive devices, with many illustrations of the various devices and their uses” by Franz Helm (1584). Credit: Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania Ms. Codex 109.

I expect neither pest control nor explosive assaults from Jeffrey, however. The only thing he “attacks” is the lawn and, more often than not, cardboard boxes.

Jeffery 3   Jeffery 2

Cats as Work Animals
For thousands of years, cats accompanied sailors to sea, including European sailors travelling to the colonies. Rats carrying fleas and disease are common stowaways on ships. As a result, cats were — and still are — used as pest control during sea travel.  Even today, sailors have “ship’s cats” to control vermin onboard their vessels. Not only do they prevent disease and destruction of foodstuffs but they keep vermin from damaging ropes and electrical wiring, which could prove CATastrophic (heh heh heh) if not for ship’s cats.

Winston and Blackie

Prime Minister Winston Churchill stops ‘Blackie’, ship’s cat of the HMS Prince of Wales, from crossing over to an American destroyer during the Atlantic Conference with President Franklin D. Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

Similarly, when Europeans first established their colonies, survival rates were much lower in the beginning due to famine and disease, so pest control was important on land as well as at sea.   Settlers often kept pragmatic, but friendly relationships with cats in order to keep vermin at bay.

Two Cats by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

“Two Cats” by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (18th century) depicts cats doing what they were expected to do, which was to kill disease carriers and some birds, like rats, carried disease vectors or could endanger crops. Credit: National Gallery of Canada.

The Enlightenment
We humans of course established bonds with our friendly working critters and some cats were adopted as what we now call “pets”. The 18th century was a transformative time in pet ownership as we have shown with dogs in another blog post. It had not always been acceptable to keep a pet in European countries. The luxuries that our pets enjoy today would be inconceivable to a person before the Age of Enlightenment. Outfits, daycare, even hotels are now available to our furry friends.  In earlier times, pets were deemed wasteful because keeping them devoted resources to an animal that was neither food nor used for its labor. It was even considered sinful to squander resources on non-working animals. Pets were a luxury saved for the bourgeoisie.

During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of their own sensibilities and opened up to a range of new philosophical ideas. There was a shift from the church being the main authority to the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge was reason.  People who were newly questioning authority also undoubtedly questioned why they could not devote resources and attention to an animal for no other reason than enjoyment and companionship.  With this attitude change, animals became viewed more as a non-human member of the household and were eventually valued in their own right. Cats became pets.

“Favourites”
We can see the growing prominence of cats as pets in 18th century poetry, paintings, and songs.

One such poem by Thomas Gray published in 1748 was called Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. The next-to-last stanza describes the tragic moment.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
A Favourite has no friend!

When Gray called the ill-fated cat “a Favourite,” he used an earlier term for “pet”.

European and American portraiture repeatedly depicted people with their pets and cats were common subjects both alone and with their human counterparts. Below, you can see two 18th century portraits of people interacting with their favorite cats.

“Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight” by Joseph Wright (c.1768) Credit: ©English Heritage, Kenwood.

As seen above, Joseph Wright took time to depict two small girls dressing up a kitten.  In children especially, the joy a companion animal brings was irresistible. This critter was undoubtedly a favorite and probably wasn’t expected to do much in the way of work.

Tea-totalism by Edward Bird

“Tea-totalism” by Edward Bird (1795). Credit: ©WAVE, www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk.

Above Edward Bird shows a woman enjoying her tea with her companion cat by her side. She even seems to allow the cat onto the table, which many people won’t allow their pets to do even today.

Finally, an 18th century Polish folk song called  “Wlazł kotek na płotek” or “The Kitten Climbed the Fence” was a very popular lullaby, describing a child and grandmother treating the kitten as a favorite by giving it milk when it climbs the fence into their yard.

Thanks to the Enlightenment, according to the Humane Society of the United States, over 97% of cat owners today consider their cats to be a family member or companion. In a way, nearly all domestic cats in America today are “favorites” rather than sources of labor.  The nature in which Americans treat their pets, whether cats, dogs, chickens, or goldfish, reflects the progression of change from the time of the Enlightenment and into present day. While academic research on such an abstract subject is difficult, it is easy to understand how cats progressed from worker and protector to best friend.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician