Finding Clues in Curtain Rings

What do you think curtains look like after hundreds of years in Virginia’s soils? Naturally, the cloth portions of such tasteful textiles quickly erode away. But archaeologists do occasionally discover curtain rings. It’s likely that brass rings such as these became separated from their stylish drapery due to cloth tearing or – occasionally – because the ring itself breaks (see third ring from left in photo below).

Curtain Rings

Possible curtain rings recovered by archaeologists at Ferry Farm. These are made from solid brass. Such rings supported bed curtains, wall hangings, and window curtains.

These archaeological gems from the soils that surround Washington’s boyhood home provide details regarding the Washington family’s decisions about the furnishing of their home. Drapery provided privacy, embellished an otherwise drab surface, enhanced warmth, and allowed occupants to control the amount of sunlight in a room. Despite these contributions to comfort and elegant style, window curtains remained somewhat uncommon in colonial households during the second quarter of the 18th century, when documents demonstrate that the Washington home had curtains.

Curtains and wall hangings were noted in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory (see photo below). This document was created after Augustine, George’s father, died. It listed his possessions and their value. Probate inventories were created by gentlemen from the neighborhood who assessed the value of the recently deceased’s possessions for estate and tax purposes. Benjamin Berryman, Hancock Lee, and Adam Reid performed this task for the Washingtons in 1743.

The window hangings recorded in Augustine’s probate in the hall back room, which served as Augustine and Mary’s bed chamber, were almost twice as expensive as those found in the parlor room. They were valued at two shillings six pence for a single window curtain. The probate inventory also notes two additional sets of fine curtains under the heading “linen.” These were even more expensive than those within the home’s rooms.  One pair was composed of silk while the other was made from cotton.

ProbateP286HallBackRmCurtainsSmall copy

This detail from Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory indicates that the hall back room had two window hangings valued at 8 shillings.

While the assemblage of curtain rings excavated at Ferry Farm may appear modest, it is worth noting that Foundation archaeologists have excavated over 900 five-ft.-by-five-ft. excavation squares! That’s well over 22,000 square feet of soil screened.[1] Every inch of soil is screened through ¼-inch mesh screen and artifacts from all time periods are cleaned, cataloged, and curated at Ferry Farm. It is only through such a thorough and extensive excavation strategy, that any evidence for brass rings that supported wall and window hangings can be discovered.

If Ferry Farm was the homestead of a less famous family (whose records were less diligently preserved) or the home of a family who lacked the income level to warrant a probate inventory, these excavated rings would be the sole evidence of the existence of wall hangings, window hangings, or bed curtains. The few rings recovered from these extensive excavations alone allow us to infer that this family had hangings. Just how these rings were employed is not known with certainty using the material record alone but these archaeological remains alongside the probate inventory provide an exceptional opportunity for Foundation scholars to understand the mid-18th century Washingtons.

The presence of brass rings at Ferry Farm illustrates the importance of thorough excavation to recover small finds artifacts. Together with the probate inventory, these rings allow archaeologists, curators, and material culture specialists to compare – and to appreciate – what the Washingtons owed in 1743 versus what was preserved in the ground after hundreds of years.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

[1]Most excavation units extend to a depth of about one foot, though some proceed to even greater depths.

Further reading
Muraca, David, John Coombs, Phil Levy, Laura Galke, Paul Nasca and Amy Muraca
2011 Small Finds, Space, and Social Context: Exploring Agency in Historical Archaeology. Northeast Historical Archaeology 40:1-20.

“I wonder if this was mine?”: Robert Bailey’s Ferry Farm

We have a unique situation here at the Ferry Farm Archaeology Lab.  One of our volunteers, who has spent hundreds of hours washing, sorting and labeling excavated artifacts, is oddly enough, also partially responsible for creating some of those artifacts in the first place!

Robert Bailey 1

Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey, his father Ray, mother Peggy and older brother Ray Jr., lived here at Ferry Farm from the late spring of 1957 until August of 1959.  His parents rented what was referred to as the “Colbert house,” a large three-story home built in 1914 by James Colbert, a farmer and businessman.

Colbert House 1

Colbert House

Robert was only five years old when he moved to Ferry Farm.  He vividly remembers playing in the many barns, running through the fields and woods that surrounded the farmhouse, and swimming in the stream that runs alongside the historic Ferry Road on hot summer days. He and his brother also showed visitors stopping to see George Washington’s boyhood home around the property and invited them to sign the guest book located inside the small late 19th century building called the Surveyor’s Shed.

Young Robert

Robert as a child (foreground left in the rocker) in the Colbert House back yard.

He also remembers playing with lots of toys typical of the time, most notably glass marbles, plastic army men, toy cars and trucks, and especially a new toy called Play Doh, a wallpaper cleaner compound that had just been reinvented as a moldable clay product for children.

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Collection of 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm. Clockwise from left: portion of a Playdoh canister lid, marbles including a large green shooter, green plastic army man, red plastic Indian, blue plastic Civil War soldier, four .22 caliber shelling casings.

Over 800 toy-related artifacts have been excavated and catalogued in our artifact database.  As a collection, these toys span all time periods, from colonial clay marbles, to Civil War-era dice, to a Cold War-era Sputnik ring, and most recently, Dora the Explorer sunglasses! We have also catalogued fragments of bicycle parts, dominoes, board game pieces, dolls, plastic figurines, toy guns and planes, toy cars and trucks, and dishes and tea sets.

Of course, Robert and his brother were not the only children who lived on or visited this site. Other children lived in the Colbert house before and after the Baileys resided there, and hundreds have visited the site on field trips and for special events, such as our annual Fourth of July celebration.

Robert cannot say with any certainty that any of the marbles he has washed in the lab once belonged to him, but the conversations that those marbles start are an important part of the oral and archaeological history of the site.  Robert Bailey has participated in the Foundation’s oral history program with a detailed accounting of his memories of the house and grounds.  Because he experienced living at Ferry Farm, he can tell us about not only the events and activities his family took part in, but also of the perceptions that visitors to the farm had about the importance of this site as Washington’s boyhood home.

Another vivid childhood memory that often comes to Robert’s mind is of his mother shooting at the black snakes that appeared in and around the house and yard.  According to Robert, one day a snake came out of a hole in an old gnarled tree located near the Surveyor’s Shed.  His mother dutifully brought out her rifle and proceeded to, as Robert says, “blast away” at the snake. Despite the countless number of bullets expended, she missed and the snake eventually slithered back into its hole.

Colbert House 3

Surveyor’s Shed in the foreground left with Colbert House in the background right.

While washing artifacts in the wet lab, Robert has come across a lot of .22 shell casings.  Just this past week he washed seven.  Each time one appears in an artifact bag, Robert chuckles and says “this shell casing might be one that my mom shot at the snake in the tree – and missed!”

Robert Bailey 2

Robert looks over some of the 20th century items excavated at Ferry Farm that, who knows, might have belonged to him in his youth.

Sixty years have passed since the Bailey family first came to live at Ferry Farm, but the past certainly comes full circle and is alive again when Robert empties another artifact bag onto the tray and begins to sort its contents.  His connection with our archaeological site provides staff with many opportunities to record and analyze more about Ferry Farm in the 20th century. Robert’s deep commitment to helping preserve George Washington’s boyhood history, combined with his own unique insights, creates a new understanding about Ferry Farm for Robert too.

Robert’s history lies mostly in the topmost soil layers of the site as not enough time has passed to deeply bury his things. Although Robert’s lost marbles and plastic army men are mixed in with excavated toys dropped by other boys and girls, it’s fun to hear him say “I wonder if this was mine?”

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Photos: It’s Spring. Let’s Dig!

Dig Site Opens (15)

Last week, another archaeological excavation season began at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Here are some scenes from the first week of digging.

On weekdays, see Ferry Farm’s archaeologists working at the excavation site from now through late-June or, if you can’t visit before June, spend a day on the dig site by watching the video below.

Learn more about Ferry Farm archaeology here.

Meet the Archaeologists: Field School Edition

Each summer. students from the University of South Florida attend a field school at George Washington’s Ferry Farm to learn practical aspects of archaeological excavations. This is what they said about their experience.

On weekdays, see Ferry Farm’s archaeologists at work on the excavation site from now through mid-June.

Meet the Archaeologists

Each summer, archaeologists from across the United States come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm for about two months of excavations on and around the site of Washington’s boyhood home. These are their stories.

On weekdays, see Ferry Farm’s archaeologists at work on the excavation site from now through mid-June.