Where Are the Human Remains?: The Washington Family

Ferry Farm’s tens of thousands of years of human habitation has provided archaeologists with nearly 800,000 artifacts to date, consisting of discarded items left by the people who lived on, worked, or visited this land. A question we often receive from visitors is where are graves of the PEOPLE who left behind these discarded items?

Well, nearly all of the Washington family, who lived at Ferry Farm from 1738 to 1772, are buried elsewhere. George is in a burial vault at Mount Vernon, where he died 220 years ago.  If you are a Fredericksburg local, you likely know George’s mother Mary is buried on Washington Avenue near Kenmore, her daughter Betty’s home. Although he died at Ferry Farm, George’s father Augustine is buried at Pope’s Creek where George was born. A Washington family cemetery had already been established there years before. George’s brothers Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles and sister Betty are accounted for in various other cemeteries in both Virginia and West Virginia.

George Washington's Tomb

George Washington’s Tomb at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson

Washington Family Burial Ground

Augustine Washington, George’s father, is buried in the Washington Family Burial Ground at Popes Creek, where George Washington was born. Credit: National Park Service

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Mary, George’s mother, is buried near The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

So, are any Washington family members buried at Ferry Farm? The only Washington buried here is George’s youngest sister Mildred, who was born shortly after the family moved to Ferry Farm in 1738, and died at only 16 months old. Her cause of death is unclear, but the infant mortality rate in the 18th century was far higher then it is today.

The topic of burials at historic sites like Ferry Farm can be both exciting and panic-inducing for archaeologists. In general, we are pretty well-versed in identifying grave shafts long before we reach actual human remains and measures are always taken to know as much as possible about where we are going to dig before we actually initiate an excavation.

Human burials leave telltale signs when they are accidentally disturbed if you are paying attention. When soil is removed from the ground and then returned during the digging of a grave, the now mixed composition of the soil doesn’t look the same as the undisturbed soil surrounding it.

In any case, how to approach the care of a burial site is a serious subject and a legal subject too. In Virginia, if archaeologists discover human remains, a permit or court order is required to continue the excavation. Once permits are in place, forensic archaeologists who specialize in excavating human remains are called in. They must determine if the burial is old or new, and whether or not we may have stumbled into a possible crime scene. Usually (thank goodness), there is no crime scene but a whole new can of worms is opened in determining what to do next.

We don’t know exactly where the remains of Mildred Washington are located on the Ferry Farm property. All we have to locate the burial site is a survey of the property conducted by George himself in 1771, where he uses “the little gate by the tombstone” as his beginning reference point to lay the boundaries of what George called “the fields where my mother lives”.

Along with the survey is an 1833 painting by John Gadsby Chapman of the Washington property facing the Rappahannock River that shows foundation stones where the Washington House stood and, in the approximate location of the grave on George’s survey, the silhouette of an object that resembles an arched headstone.

In 2009, we brought in experts to conduct a geoscientific study to assist in locating but not excavating the grave of Mildred. It would help the foundation planning effort if we knew where this important grave was located. William Hannah, Claude Petrone, John Imlay, and Dale Brown conducted non-destructive remote sensing surveys in and around the area identified in George’s 1771 survey. These remote sensing surveys included ground-penetrating radar (GPR), electromagnetic induction (EMI), and vertical magnetic-gradiometry.

Ground-penetrating radar survey of George Washington's Ferry Farm by Bill Hannah and John Imlay.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of a portion of George Washington’s Ferry Farm conducted by Bill Hannah (R) and John Imlay (L).

GPR by DaleBrown and PetePatrone

Dale Brown (L) and Pete Patrone (R) assisted with the GPR survey.

The researchers kept in mind that while finding Mildred’s grave was like searching for a needle in a haystack, there were some clues to hold onto while conducting the search. First, they considered the 1771 survey and the Chapman painting, and then they focused on the probable size of the grave. To prepare themselves for what kind of anomalies to look out for on their equipment, they looked at a modern growth chart for a 16 month old child. The composition of the container holding the body was also considered. It was determined the size of the anomaly should be around 29.25 to 33.25 inches in length, and though it had been 270 years, any iron elements such as coffin nails might be detected with these methods.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) uses electromagnetic radiation in the radio spectrum to reflect signals off of anomalies below the surface. In short, radar waves bounce off of objects of different densities in the ground, providing an image of differences in the surrounding area. You can see voids as well as objects. The image created comes back like this:

Electromagnetic induction (EMI) measures changes in electromagnetic fields, and the magnetic susceptibility of both metal and non-metal materials to provide a sub-surface image (below). The resulting image maps areas of more and less resistivity, revealing patterns and shapes that archaeologists can use to identify any possible features.

EMI by Bill Hannah

Bill Hannah begins an electromagnetic induction survey at Ferry Farm.

Vertical magnetic-gradiometry senses total magnetization of ferrous (iron) materials and produces imaging similar to EMI, but using just magnetization instead of electrical conductivity. Patterns and shapes that archaeologists recognize are still present.

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Bill Hannah conducted a magnetic gradiometry survey of Ferry Farm.

Once plotted on a map, there were a few areas in the expected region that had “grave-like” qualities based on the 2009 remote sensing survey.

Diagram from remote sensor survey report show "grave-like" echoes.

Diagram from remote sensor survey report shows “grave-like” echoes.

Armed with evidence from surveys old and new, we theorize that this area is the possible location of Mildred Washington’s grave. But without a full excavation, we can’t be certain if this is Mildred’s gravesite, or if this area even contains a grave at all. Conveniently shaped anomalies can throw off researchers, but these geophysical surveys provided useful evidence. There are indeed a few anomalies that are the right length, width, and depth of a grave for a young child. We have not conducted any ground-truthing, or surveys that involve coring or probing the ground, nor have we dared to move dirt in this area for fear of disturbing Mildred’s final resting place. The area remains undisturbed, even while the surrounding excavations and the construction of the replica Washington House took place from 2016 to 2018. Due to the destructive nature of archaeology, avoiding the grave site is best for now, and there are no plans to disturb or excavate the area.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director / Archaeology Lab Technician

Time for Some Trash Talk: The Social Role of Garbage at Historic Kenmore

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

Today, we would find trash disposal in the 18th century to be pretty horrifying.  Garbage of all sorts – sharp-edged broken household objects, putrefying food scraps, and odoriferous human waste – was simply dumped in the street, the back yard, or, when available, nearby holes or ravines.  Often, it was literally tossed out the nearest window or the back door.

Believe it or not, archaeology is very concerned with the garbage disposal habits of people in the past.  Sites of disposal called middens are treasure troves of artifacts that excite archaeologists the most because people’s trash can reveal so much about their lives and sometimes even a bit about their personalities.

Archaeologists have excavated a sizable portion of George Washington’s Ferry Farm for decades.  These excavations revealed how the Washington family and their enslaved workers disposed of household items, food scraps, and human waste in the area immediately behind the house. Color-coded maps showing the intensity of artifact concentrations illustrate how they simply stepped to the edge of the back porch and tossed trash into the back yard.

Animal Bone Concentration behind Washington House

Map showing the concentration of animal bones excavated from the midden at the rear of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

At Historic Kenmore, some archaeology has been done around the kitchen site and these excavations reveal more complex habits of trash disposal compared to Ferry Farm.

Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis successfully manipulated the landscape immediately surrounding the house and kitchen and designated certain areas for certain tasks.

An insurance plat of Kenmore from 1797 shows the house as well as the nearby outbuildings in relation to the house.  In the 1700s, wood-built kitchen and laundry buildings stood on the spots were two recreated Colonial Revival-style brick outbuildings stand today.

Insurance Plat of Kenmore, 1797

A drawing done in 1797 for insurance purposes showing the location of outbuildings in relation to the main house at Kenmore.

The earliest photo of the kitchen taken during the mid-1800s when Kenmore was owned the Harrison family shows a sizable wooden structure with two enslaved workers – a man named Cary and a woman named Brittania – in the front of the kitchen.

Kitchen at Kenmore in the mid-1800s

The earliest known photo of Kenmore’s wooden kitchen taken sometime in the mid-1800s and showing two enslaved workers believed to be a woman named Brittania and a man named Cary.

The kitchen was just 30 feet from the house.  Rachel, an enslaved cook for the Lewises back in the late 1700s, carried food from the kitchen, across the kitchen yard, and entered the main house through an exterior door that opened into the slave passage, a short but extremely narrow hallway leading to both the master bedchamber and to the dining room.  After a meal, enslaved house servants cleared the dining room table or wherever else in the house that the family might have taken their meal and reversed the trip, carrying food waste back outside through the slave passage.

Slave Passage from Bedchamber to Dining Room

Passage in Kenmore used by enslaved workers to travel between the kitchen, dining room, and master bedchamber.

As archaeology has shown us at Ferry Farm, it would not have been unusual for the enslaved workers to simply dump the food waste into the yard between the kitchen and the house.  Excavations at Kenmore, however, show an extraordinarily clean kitchen yard with few artifacts.  The things like animal bones and broken ceramic dishes or glass cups that you would normally find in an 18th century midden, or trash disposal area, are not there.  The area is very clean, which indicates that it was kept very clean.

Excavated kitchen yard 1

Yard at Kenmore between the kitchen (shown) and the house (behind photographer) under excavation.

Excavated kitchen yard 2

The kitchen yard was relatively clean archaeologically.

Archaeologists at Kenmore did find the kitchen midden, however.  It was located just to the west.  While there is a window on the west side of the kitchen, there is no door.  If the waste couldn’t be tossed out the window, enslaved workers walked over to that side of the building to dump it.  This midden is full of artifacts: a pig jaw, for example, and an amazing amount of other animal bones, a knife with a bone handle, as well as architectural material and much more.

Midden at Kenmore

The midden discovered at Kenmore contained a large amount of architectural debris.

Pig jaw found in Kenmore's midden

Pig jaw found in Kenmore’s midden.

Bone handled knife found in Kenmore's midden

Bone-handled knife found in Kenmore’s midden.

The relative lack of artifacts in the clean area between the house and kitchen along with the centralized location of artifacts in the midden gives some idea of the level of control and surveillance enslaved workers were subjected to by Fielding and Betty Lewis.  Betty, for example, could sit at her desk in the master bedchamber (her “command central”) and with the slave passage doors open see directly into the kitchen yard.  From her seat, she ran the household and, in Fielding’s absence and then after his death, the plantation itself.

View of Slave Passage from Bedchamber

View from Betty Washington Lewis’s desk into the slave passage. The closed door visible in the passage opened into the kitchen yard.

The land on the kitchen’s north side was used still another way.  Excavations show it was a kitchen garden.  A cutaway view of the soil layers or the soil stratigraphy reveal subsoil formed before humans, then plowed soil in a large field of corn before the house was built, followed by redeposited clay from the house construction between 1772 and 1775, and finally soil indicating a kitchen garden.  Kitchen garden soil is marked by plow scars that go in all kinds of different directions as many different crops are planted over the years.

Kitchen garden stratigraphy

Diagram illustrating the soil layers excavated in the kitchen garden area at Kenmore.

Finally, the kitchen’s east side was dominated by the formal gardens and terrace.  While the present garden at Kenmore is Colonial Revival in style, archaeological clues to what the original 18th century garden looked like remain under the soil.

Archaeology has shown us that at Ferry Farm, the disposal of trash was something of a free-for-all within the area behind the Washington house.  At Kenmore, however the yard on each side of the kitchen building was carefully controlled for a different use.

Land Use around Kenmore's Kitchen

Aerial photo of Historic Kenmore with different land uses around the kitchen marked.

No matter where the garbage was disposed, however, finding the trash middens on the landscapes has revealed much about the free and enslaved residents of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

What’s Growing in Ferry Farm’s Garden?

As many of you know, the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm was reconstructed and furnished as accurately as possible using historic documents, paintings, letters, and, of course, archaeology. Now that the challenge of getting the house built and open to visitors has passed, it’s time to turn to the rest of our plan for interpreting Ferry Farm’s landscape. This will eventually include constructing outbuildings, finishing the work yard, and improving the garden.

Even though the present garden is located at Ferry Farm’s Visitor Center and not yet near the Washington house replica, we used archaeological discoveries to decide what goes into the garden this spring. Using data from past excavations on Washington-era contexts, we drew some conclusions on what the Washington family and their enslaved workers cultivated here. While most organic material left behind over 250 years ago is long gone, as archaeologists, we sometimes get lucky and find biological and botanical remains that have withstood the time in the ground. We get especially lucky when we do find botanical remains like seeds and wood because, depending on the elements, they usually decompose easier and faster than bone.

Visitor often ask how we find some of our tiniest artifacts such as seeds. For important contexts and Washington era features, we don’t want to miss a single (tiny) thing, so we use a water screen. Instead of the usual quarter-inch screen we use for dry sifting dirt, we use a gentle stream of water from a garden hose and spray away the dirt through a window screen. We then use tweezers to pick out the tiny artifacts left behind.  Objects like the straight pin in the photo below and seeds could otherwise fall through the standard quarter-inch screen.

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Water screening

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Picking out the artifacts after water screening.

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Straight pin

In 2015, we had flora remains from a mid-18th century storehouse cellar feature that had been captured by our fine mesh water screens sent to Justine McKnight, an archaeobotanical consultant for analysis.  Without getting extremely technical, I will say that we gained some very useful data to use to plant our garden this year. Seed specimens discovered archaeologically and used in cultivation consisted  of peas, green beans, wheat, and corn. Seeds included hackberry and, of course, cherry. The only nut uncovered was a hazelnut shell.

Along with this archaeological evidence, we also know that some tobacco was grown on the Washington farm because of court records. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco was Virginia’s premier export and most valuable cash crop but places along the Rappahannock River like Ferry Farm were not great tobacco land.  In these areas, as our excavated seeds show, planters moved onto corn, wheat, and other crops, knowing they would never get rich on tobacco.

Using all of this information, we planted similar crops in the demonstration garden along with other crops widely grown in 18th century colonial America.

While seemingly insignificant at first glance, these tiny charred remains of flora give us a snapshot in time of the diets of the Washington family and enslaved workers at Ferry Farm. These definitely are not the only plants they were eating, but we do know via archaeology that these were stored by the family in the mid-18th century. Using the other archival resources listed above, we will continue to fill in the gaps and enhance our garden and landscape according to the historical and archaeological records.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Lecture – The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia [Video]

On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at The George Washington Foundation, presented “The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia,” the final talk in this year’s annual lecture series. Dave presented three case studies in 18th century garbage disposal at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Colonial Williamsburg, and Historic Kenmore.

Thanks to the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street in Fredericksburg, Virginia for hosting the series once again this year. To learn about other events and happenings, visit kenmore.org.

Making 18th Century Glass & Ceramic Reproductions: An Update

The replica Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm has been open for tours for one year now but we still continue to add reproduction furniture and objects to the rooms inside. Since the house is a replica built using archaeology, historic research, and expert knowledge, we are using the same three foundations to create replica objects to display inside the house so that visitors may have a hands-on interactive experience.  Guests may sit on chairs, lie on the beds, pick up tumblers, hold tea pots and much more! Here in the archaeology lab at Ferry Farm, we’re always hard at work making new reproduction ceramic and glass items for the Washington house, as seen in this video.  Let’s take a look at some of our newest additions!

This adorable little teapot is a reproduction of a ware type called Littler’s Blue which had a very short run between 1750 and 1765.  These pots were often gilded with gold so we found a tiny blue teapot and made it fabulous.

We needed a decanter for the Washington house and while the shape of this one wasn’t perfect we were able to engrave it with a tulip motif based on artifacts recovered archaeologically at Ferry Farm. And because we caught gilding fever one of our very talented interns embellished it further to match eighteenth century examples. We also whittled down the ridiculous cork, although we’re searching for a more appropriate glass one.

We’ve excavated a lot of Chinese porcelain with what is called at ‘Imari’ palette, which is defined by under the glaze blue hand-painting, over-the-glaze red painting, and gilding.  Reproduction Imari is hard to find so we turned this plain white teapot into an Imari.  Our inspiration was the 18th century teapot below featuring cute little silkie chickens!

Our staff then set out to turn this colonial revival basin into a tin-glazed serving bowl.  Our excavations have turned up quite a bit of hand-painted polychrome tin-glaze so it was a must have for the new house.  We decided to copy the eighteenth century bowl below. A little bit of paint and presto!  Bye basin and hello serving bowl!  Can you spot the tiny bee hidden among the flowers?

We’ve been very fortunate to have a few extremely artistic interns, one of whom decorated this milk glass tumbler with an eighteenth century design from the vase below.  Some artistic license was taken and we decided to leave out the odd crab/lobster/crayfish….thing at the feet of the lady.  We think she turned out pretty nicely and since we’ve excavated a lot of painted milk glass at Ferry Farm she is a good fit for the house!

If you’d like to see any of these in person, please come take a tour of the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm!  Where, unlike most museums, touching the (reproduction) objects is highly encouraged!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

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