How to Do Archaeology During a Pandemic

Like so many of you, in the middle of March this year, nearly all employees of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore began working from home and did not return to our offices for two and a half months.  We expected a lengthy time away and, as such, prepared as best we could for the change.  For some departments, the change mainly involved figuring out access to digital files but, since our jobs revolve around physical artifacts, we archaeologists had to do a little improvising.

The ‘wet lab’ where artifacts are washed before cataloging and analysis sits quietly unused at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

First, while it’s normally not a “best practice” to take artifacts home, we really had no choice if we were going to remain productive.  This meant I as archaeology lab supervisor and that Elyse and Judy, archaeology lab technicians , all had to create what essentially amounted to an a archaeology lab in each of our homes.  Elyse and Judy need space to wash, label, and catalogue artifacts while I needed space to analyze artifacts while simultaneously keeping them away from my extremely inquisitive preschooler! I mostly succeeded in that last task. Elyse actually enlisted the help of her older and amazing daughter June with washing artifacts.  As so many of us found out in 2020, working and parenting from home is not easy but Elyse and I adapted well, I think.

Elyse Adams, archaeology lab technician, and her daughter June wash artifacts at home.

It should also be noted, however, that keeping artifacts away from all of our many, many dogs and cats proved challenging as well.   While my cats were thrilled (well, as thrilled as cats can get, at least) that I was home all day, they were occasionally of the opinion that the Washington-era porcelain sherds I was researching looked much better on the floor.

Despite these challenges, we got the job done and eventually returned to the lab at Ferry Farm having accomplished quite a bit.

Life inside Ferry Farm’s archaeology lab looks quite different now, too, compared to this time in 2019. Since the lab is relatively close quarters, we instituted a rigorous cleaning schedule, spaced our work areas out as much as possible, and started taking temperatures every day.  Our beloved volunteers have not come back (Shout out to our volunteers! You guys are awesome!) because we needed to limit the number of people working in the lab to only myself, Elyse, and Judy.

One of the coolest features of our lab is the huge viewing window through which visitors could see real live archaeologists at work.  While Ferry Farm is now open to the public for tours, the visitor center remains closed and there’s no longer any inquisitive folks peering at us through the glass. It’s a surprisingly lonely feeling not to glance up from our work occasionally to see visitors watching what we’re doing.  We also put a temporary halt on lab tours that we do occasionally during special events or children’s camps at Ferry Farm.  Both of these changes are a bummer because we really liked the interaction we had with visitors. That being said, we’re optimistic that someday life will return to normal eventually and we’ll be able to share our lab with the public once again.  When that time does finally comes, please visit and check out the archaeology lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. We miss you!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

‘Now With No Morphine!’:  A Look at Patent Medicine Bottles Donated to Ferry Farm

Recently, George Washington’s Ferry Farm received a generous donation of bottles from the Mary Ball Washington Museum and Library.  For the most part they date from the late 19th to early 20th century and therefore have no connection to the Washingtons.  However, our Archaeology Department can certainly use them for a type collection.  A type collection is a teaching tool that will employ these bottles, known as an assemblage, to compare with bottle sherds we excavate from the field.  As such, we needed to do a thorough analysis of these bottles and it turns out a sizable portion of them are what we would call ‘patent medicines’.

Patent Medicine Bottles

Patent medicines have been around for a long time but reached the height of their popularity in the 19th century.  The term is a bit of a misnomer because it wasn’t the formula of the medicine that was patented but rather just the medicine’s name.  By doing this the manufacturer was not obligated to disclose the ingredients of their potions and as such could mix anything together and call it ‘medicine’.  Subsequently, many of these concoctions included ingredients designed to make you feel better, even if they did not actual cure any of your ailments.  This included, but was not limited to, copious quantities of alcohol, laudanum, cocaine, heroin, morphine, ether, chloroform, opium, etc.  In some cases, the medicines, particularly creams and ointments, contained zero active ingredients but also included a substance to make you feel a physical healing sensation. For example, capsaicin, eucalyptus, camphor, or menthol in these medicines could make your skin feel hot, cold, or tingly.

Patent medicine manufacturers emphasized the consumer’s ability to take their health into their own hands since their products could be purchased without a prescription.  Their advertisements vilified traditional doctors, who they portrayed as agents of death.  Often marketed as cure alls, some purported to treat dozens of ailments ranging from headaches to warts.  The patent medicine propaganda machine was strong, often trumpeting false testimonials from people miraculously cured by them and millions of bottles of quack medicine were sold in the 19th century.  Eventually, concern mounted over the addictive quality of many of these medicines, bolstered by a mounting death count attributed to the unregulated concoctions. Many of the deaths were unfortunately children.

One good example of a highly dangerous patent medicine was Porter’s Pain King.  It claimed to relieve colds, nervous and sick headache, rheumatic and neuralgic pains, toothache, backache, sprains, bruises and burns.  Containing a whopping 63 percent alcohol (much more than tequila) mixed with ether (a powerful anesthetic which is even more intoxicating than alcohol), it had dosages for adults, children, and animals.  The manufacturer also recommended bathing in it, which was potentially an even worse idea than ingesting this toxic brew.  Ether is really good at rendering people unconscious when inhaled and the fumes are more potent and unstable when heated by hot water.  Although, you wouldn’t feel any pain after taking Porter’s Pain King, it probably wasn’t worth the risk of addiction and death.  To combat the rampant patent medicine industry the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, which eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The act forced patent medicine makers to reveal their active ingredients and ensure that they actually contained what was advertised. It proved the downfall of many and we can all be grateful for that.

BUT back to our own bottles!  We selected a few of the most interesting ones and have described them below along with a brief history of each.[1]

 Sharp and Dohme White Pine Compound Syrup

Upon looking at this bottle, you may notice the reassuring words “without morphine”. Though today we might hope this would go without saying, by the time of the Civil War, morphine was an extremely popular pain-killer. Unfortunately, morphine was as addictive as it was effective and morphine addictions were common. Said one writer, “As an allayer of pain it is king, but as a destroyer of men, mentally, morally, and physically, it is as the traitor, pretending to be friendly, but at the same time slowly dragging its victim to death.”[2]

Sharp and Dohme White Pine Compound Syrup

The morphine epidemic, or morphinism, as it was called at the time, was a growing problem in the early 20th century. Recognizing the dangers of morphine, pharmaceutical companies, like Sharp and Dohme, began turning to other alternatives, like chloroform and heroin.[3] These were just as effective at numbing pain, but supposedly less habit forming than morphine (they weren’t).[4] Like in this bottle, the mixing of herbs, alcohol, and opiates or chloroform was fairly common in patent medicines.  As a side note, ingesting chloroform is an absolutely awful idea and you should never do it.

Wine of Cardui

Medicines advertising the treatment of ‘female complaints’ became their own sub-category of patent medicine. In the late 19th and early 20th century, women’s tonics, such as Wine of Cardui and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound were extremely popular solutions to all manner of ‘womanly troubles’. At this time, discussion of women’s health issues such as menstruation and childbirth were fairly taboo so many women turned to patent medicines for help.[5] These tonics advertised curing everything from menstrual pain to acting as a general restorative for ‘delicate’ women.[6] Discussions of rampant sexism of the marketing aside, Wine of Cardui was over 50% potassium carbonate, 16% salt, and 20% alcohol,[7] with alcohol being its most potent active ingredient. Women’s tonics and medicines were also a socially acceptable way for women to consume alcohol. At the time, there was a significant stigma associated with women drinking alcohol recreationally, but there was no stigma with drinking alcoholic tonics to aid her womanly issues.[8] Unfortunately, many of these remedies also contained powerful opiates which led many to become unknowingly addicted.

Mount Vernon Whiskey

During Prohibition, patent medicines experienced a revival of sorts. One of the only legal ways to obtain alcohol during Prohibition was through a prescription. During this time, the government permitted limited production of spirits for medicinal purposes and wine for religious sacraments. Though the efficacy of medicinal alcohol was debated and, at times, discouraged, the practice continued.[9] Medicinal alcohol could be prescribed to treat a wide variety of ailments, from cancer to depression and could be prescribed to anyone willing to pay the hefty price tag. In fact, prescribing alcohol became a pretty lucrative business for doctors and pharmacists. Obtaining and filling a prescription could cost around $6 for a pint at the time, which is upwards of $70 in today’s money.[10] Upon obtaining this prescription, patients could receive one pint of their drink of choice every ten days. The practice proved extremely popular and doctors prescribed an estimated 64 million pints of medicinal alcohol in the first year of Prohibition.  Eventually, the Willis-Campbell Act of 1921 tightened the restrictions of these prescriptions limiting doctors to 100 prescriptions every 90 days and patients to a half-pint of alcohol. These restrictions did little to lessen the frequency of prescriptions, and physicians wrote millions of prescription a year throughout the 1920s.[11] Mount Vernon Whiskey is a classic example of ‘medicinal alcohol’, and it clearly states on the back label that it is only to be ingested for medical purposes (yeah right!).  And at a whopping 100% proof, it would surely make you feel better, at least initially.

Conclusion

Although most patent medicines have disappeared, a few held on because they actually did cure certain ailments.  These include Bayer aspirin, Doan’s pills, Luden’s cough drops, and Vick’s VapoRub, to name a few, although now these medicines are regulated by the government.  However, that is not to say that unregulated medicines do not still exist in our country.  ‘Supplements’, often taken for medical purposes, were ruled to be a category of food in 1994 and as such are not required to do rigorous testing by the FDA.  Drugs have to be proven safe before they can be sold but supplements are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise and have no obligation to show that they actually work in the manner advertised.  Additionally, they do not have to disclose all ingredients or demonstrate they contain the concentration of ingredients advertised, making them the patent medicines of our modern era.

Carolyn Currin, UMW Student
Spring 2019 Fleming Smith Scholar

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

 

[1] Fike, Richard, The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed medicine Bottles. The Blackburn Press, New Jersey, 1987; Carson, Gerald, One for a Man, Two for a Horse: A Pictoral History, Grave & Comic, of Patent Medicines. Bramhall House, New York, 1961.

[2] L.L. Stanley, “Morphinism” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 6, no. 4 (1915): 586-93, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1132738?sid=primo&origin=crossref&seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents [accessed April 8, 2019].

[3] Joe McKendry, “Sears Once Sold Heroin.” The Atlantic, March 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/03/sears-roebuck-bayer-heroin/580441/ [accessed April 8,, 2019].

[4] “Ether and Chloroform” History.com, April 21, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/ether-and-chloroform [accessed April 8, 2019].

[5] “Quack Cures and Self-Remedies: Patent Medicine” Digital Public Library of America. https://dp.la/exhibitions/patent-medicine/women-health-household-hints/?item=1303 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[6] “Black Draught and Cardui Promise Quick Relief” The History Engine, 2015 https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4650 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[7] Ibid; Cramp, Arthur J. “Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil, Quackery and Allied Matters Affecting the Public Health” American Medical Association, vol. 2 (1921). https://books.google.com/books?id=8AVEAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA171&lpg=PA171&dq=wine+of+cardui&source=bl&ots=Uj6v9dWCFj&sig=ACfU3U2BbKfuBig1nwqlbX1WzoNZkQdBLA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi16Jjw7MDhAhVEqlkKHThZBV04ChDoATAOegQICBAB#v=onepage&q=wine%20of%20cardui&f=false [accessed April 8. 2019].

[8] Becky M. Nicolaides, “The State’s ‘Sharp Line Between the Sexes: Women, alcohol, and the law in the United States, 1850-1908” Addiction 8, no. 91 (1996): 1211-1230, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8828248 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[9] Megan Gambino, “During Prohibition, You Doctor Could Write You A Prescription for Booze,” Smithsonian.com, October 7, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/during-prohibition-your-doctor-could-write-you-prescription-booze-180947940/ [accessed April 8, 2019].

[10] Paula Mejia, “The Lucrative Business of Prescribing Booze During Prohibition” Atlas Obscura, March 15, 2017, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/doctors-booze-notes-prohibition [accessed April 8, 2019]; “Medicinal Alcohol” The Ohio State University, 2019. https://prohibition.osu.edu/american-prohibition-1920/medicinal-alcohol [accessed April 8, 2019].

[11] Ibid.

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.

What Is This Artifact?

With building work on the reconstructed Washington family home at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly finished, our archaeologists are in the midst of identifying Washington-owned plates, bowls, glasses, and other household artifacts to be used to furnish the house once construction is finally complete.

While working to identify things, archaeologists sometimes encounter a “mystery artifact” that either can’t be identified or has been altered to serve an unknown purpose from what was originally intended.  We wrote about one especially perplexing mystery artifact almost three years ago.  With that mystery artifact, someone intentionally and for unknown reasons chipped away the edges of that 18th century leaded glass base from a cup or mug to form a disc .

Recently, during analysis of the Washington family’s table glass, Ferry Farm archaeologists discovered another base from an 18th century drinking glass that someone tried to modify by actually breaking or knapping off flakes of glass. It was an apparent attempt to turn the base into a disc. As before, we don’t know for what reason.

Mystery Glass Base

To confirm the glass was knapped, Ferry Farm archaeologists got “science-y” and asked nearby Dovetail Cultural Resource Group in Fredericksburg to take photographs of the glass base using a microscope camera.

Using this microscope camera made the clear glass appear green in the resulting photos.  More importantly, the photos helped us to see flake scars from knapping, which we’ve outlined in black in the photo below, and thus confirm that the glass was actually knapped by someone.

Microscope Photo of Mystery Glass Base

As often happens when studying the past, however, our analysis provided answers but also created many more questions.  Who did the knapping?  Was it perhaps the job of an enslaved worker?  What was the goal?  Why make these modifications?  Although it’s the science of history, even archaeology can’t yet provide answers to these questions.  In fact, we many never have the answers.  In the end, sometimes not knowing is just as much a part of archaeology as knowing.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

How Many Curlers did a Harried Hairdresser Need? Let’s Do the Math!

After unearthing over 200 wig hair curlers from Washington’s Boyhood Home, we were in a position to do something that – to our knowledge – has never been done before: crossmend all those curler fragments. As a result, we can now predict the minimum number of curlers the Washington family’s harried hairdressers needed.

2013_07_04_wigcurler

Plate 1: A wig hair curler fresh from the excavation of the Washingtons’ task yard. Note the “WB” mark on its end, which we believe to be the Initials of its British manufacturer. Image courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University/Bernard Means.

If you remember our blog post from way back in January 2015, these unglazed ceramic curlers were often used by wigmakers to create the curled styles of a wig’s coiffure during the making of a new peruke (Plate 1). We’ve also learned that hair stylists employed curlers to freshen the lagging curls upon an existing wig, after a gentleman had worn it out. How often a wig needed to be re-set depended upon the standards of the gentleman, and the activities and weather that he and his stylish coiffure encountered. Because curlers had to be heated to be effective, they were only used when wigs were safely removed from the gentleman’s head.

Before our crossmending could commence, the curlers had to be washed, cataloged, and labeled. Then, all of the labeled curler fragments could be compared and evaluated for crossmending. Previous analysis revealed that the assemblage included nine different sizes (Plate 2). Most of our curlers are smaller diameter, especially sizes one and two (for shorter hair/narrow width curls). Within each size, width and even length varied: they were not manufactured in a standardized way. This was the eighteenth century, after all.

Ferry Farm All Nine-b-Smaller

Plate 2: Representatives of the nine different curler sizes from Ferry Farm. These nine sizes were analytically imposed. They may not necessarily represent historically defined categories.

FFCurlerMarksShopt.small

Plate 3: There were three varieties of maker’s marks. A few curlers had no marks.

Most curlers had one of three varieties of maker’s marks (Plate 3). However, a handful exhibited no mark at all. It was within these subcategories that the cross mending began. And the results were surprising.

You’ve probably broken a glass or plate. They usually break into many pieces. In contrast, curlers tend to break into two fragments at their weakest point: near the center of the curler (Plate 4). With a single mend you can often get a complete or near complete specimen (Plate 5).

FF18 Curlers h.shopt.small

Plate 4: Curlers tend to break into two fragments.

One of the primary goals of crossmending was to determine whether we had found all of the curlers used here during the mid-1700s, or just a portion of them. If we had found the entire assemblage, for example, our 194 curler fragments should result in 97 crossmended curlers. That is to say, they should all mend to another fragment. An example of a crossmend is shown in Plate 5.

Archaeologists refer to this process of mending fragmented remains of a larger item together as “crossmending.” Whether glass bottles. tablewares, ceramic vessels, or even the bones of animals, this process allows us to determine the minimum number of any given item in the recovered collection. For example, if after crossmending, you have three right hind cow legs and two left hind cow legs you know that were a minimum of three cows on site. This is a dramatic oversimplification, but you get the idea. This educated guess of the least number of specimens present is called the minimum number of individuals, or MNI.

SFR65-3055

Plate 5: A typical curler crossmend from Ferry Farm. Two fragments mend to form a complete specimen. Often, these curlers break in the middle, as shown.

After weeks of dedicated crossmendingby steadfast interns, enthusiastic volunteers, and dedicated Foundation staff, a total of fifteen whole curlers were crossmended from thirty previously disparate fragments. When added to our impressive collection of complete curlers (n=20), a total of 35 complete curlers (20 complete, excavated curlers and an additional 15 formed from 30 mended fragments) make up the Ferry Farm assemblage.

Another exciting result of this exercise was that we now had two complete (mended) size one curlers and a mended size eight curler: previously these two respective sizes were only represented by disjointed fragments. Unfortunately, no mended size nine curlers were discovered. Size nine continues to be represented by fragments, and it is the only size from Ferry Farm for which we have no complete examples.

So what’s the minimum number of curlers that the Washingtons’ hairdresser used to curl their many wigs? Let’s do the math!

There are        164 molded curler fragments with no matches
+  1 hand made curler fragment
+20 whole (unbroken) molded curlers
+15 mended molded curlers (from 30 fragments)
                          (a minimum of) 200 curlers

Another informative aspect of crossmending is seeing from what areas of the site the mended curlers were found (Figure 1). As Figure 1 shows, a clear relationship between the work yard, where the majority of curlers were discovered and the Washington House can be seen. This adds additional evidence to our hypothesis that the majority of curling tasks took place in the eastern work yard and that finishing tasks associated with wigs (powdering, drying the washed, wet wig, and final elegant touches) took place in the parlor. The parlor has emerged as an area of wig hair maintenance, since eight curlers/curler fragments were recovered from the parlor room root cellar.

14SeptCurlerXMendzSmall

Figure 1: This bird’s-eye view of the Washington house and surrounding yard shows where ten of the crossmended fragments mend to their respective mates. A ‘path’ between the work yard – where the majority of curlers were used – and the Parlor inside the house is evident.

While wearing wigs was highly fashionable among refined British colonial gentleman, little is known about how they were maintained, how often they were cleaned and set, and how these crucial activities were performed at the household level. The data recovered from Ferry Farm is providing new information and innovative analysis of this poorly understood, but essential hairdressing routine

All in all, a terrific exercise!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Photos: Grandparent-Grandchild Archaeology Day Camp

During spring break last week, George Washington’s Ferry Farm hosted to Grandparent-Grandchild Archaeology Camp. Campers, young and old, got a crash course on the entire archaeology process at Ferry Farm and the importance of archaeology to history. From recording information and digging up artifacts to a behind-the-scenes lab tour and creating an artifact diorama, campers left with a new-found knowledge of what is beneath their feet!  Here are some photos of the camp.

“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.

DSC_0071

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

Inside the Archaeology Lab: Putting Artifacts on Exhibit

Here on Lives & Legacies we’ve shown you a variety of important tasks that take place inside the Archaeology Lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. You’ve seen how we wash, catalog, label, and then mend vessels with archival glue. One goal of all this work is to piece together whole artifacts from the many broken bits found and share that whole artifact with our visitors as part of the exhibits in our museum gallery.  Right now, a new exhibit of white salt-glazed stoneware vessels is on display at Ferry Farm. It took numerous staff and volunteers working hundreds of hours to get the vessels on display ready to be exhibited. Here’s how we did it!

Seven reconstructed white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware vessels make up a new exhibit at Ferry Farm.  These pieces, which include two dinner plates, a fruit dish, three ointment pots (used for mixing medicines and cosmetics), and a tea ware or condiment pot lid, were all excavated from the Ferry Farm site. These ceramics were popular during the mid-18th century and most likely graced the tables of the Washington family.

white-salt-glaze-fruit-dish

White salt glaze stoneware fruit dish, 1740-1765. The dish is decorated with a molded “dot, diaper, basket” pattern and would have been displayed prominently in the Washington house at Ferry Farm. An almost identical dish has been excavated at Mount Vernon and additional sherds with a similar pattern were recovered across the river at Kenmore. This may signify a Washington family preference for the motif or indicate that someone within the family acquired multiple fruit dishes and gave them as gifts, something George Washington was known to do.

In preparation for the exhibit, I spent the better part of three weeks in August and September finishing the documentation for the individual vessels and then meticulously gluing them together. This relatively small amount of time spent at the end of the project was only the tip of the iceberg – the total amount of time spent getting these pieces ready for exhibition encompassed a year and a half! Preparing these pieces to be displayed involved the hard work of numerous archaeology lab staff and volunteers.

November 2014 – January 2015: Executive decisions are made…
First, discussions were held within the archaeology department about studying Ferry Farm’s archaeological collection of white salt-glazed stoneware. Such a study would answer questions about the material setting of the Washington household and help with interpreting the forthcoming Washington house replica to the public. The project was given the go-ahead.

January 2015: Getting the lists together…
Using our searchable artifact database, we generated a list of every piece of white salt-glazed stoneware in our collection.  A total number of 1,623 artifact bags were on this list, representing over 2,800 actual sherds.

database

Screencap of the artifact database.

February 2015: Puzzle-solving begins!
We started pulling the 1,623 artifact bags from storage, and by my records, we were still pulling artifact bags in June.  Lab staff, volunteers, and, on rainy days, the excavation field crews helped with pulling the artifacts.

After making sure the sherds were labeled correctly, we laid them all out on one of the lab tables, which had been covered in a black foam board to make it easier to see the all-white ceramics. The sherds were first separated by decorative variations, such as plain white salt-glazed, slip-dipped, scratch blue, or dipped with iron oxide, and next by vessel part, such as rims, bases, and bodies. Then the cross-mending began.

white-salt-glaze-artifacts-on-table

Sherds of white salt glaze stoneware waiting to be mended together.

Over the next eleven months, countless hours were spent at the table looking for mends between the sherds.  Having identifiable vessel parts, such as rims and molded and decorative elements, helped in the matching process, but there were hundreds of plain white, non-descript sherds to try and fit together.  Pieces that mended were taped together with painter’s tape, which doesn’t leave an adhesive residue on the artifacts.

A friendly competition began and whoever had the most mends at the end of each month won a free lunch!  In all, everyone spent countless, addictive hours each week scrutinizing the sherds and patiently putting together “puzzles” for which, unfortunately, the majority of the pieces were missing.

lauren-mending

“Do these match?”

vessel-209-pot-lid-recto-before-treatment

Puzzle solved!

January 2016: Minimum Vessel Count…
After eleven months, we cried “uncle” to the cross-mending and started the minimum vessel count by figuring out how many and what types of individual WSG vessels were represented in our collection.  Under the supervision of Mara Kaktins, The George Washington Foundation’s ceramic and glass specialist, the sherds were separated into what we believed were individual vessels using the bases and rim styles.  By late April, our choices were firm and over sixty white salt-glazed vessels were identified.

July 2016: Putting the paperwork in order….
Treatment reports were started on the most complete vessels, which would be included in the new exhibit.  Each report listed all the sherds that made up each vessel and their condition. Photographs were taken to help with the mending and gluing.  The remaining white salt-glazed sherds on the table were separated into bags according to decorative and body type, their contexts recorded in a spreadsheet for our records, and then returned in storage.

August 2016: Finally, the fun part – gluing!
I started gluing the vessels using a product called B-72, an archival glue that can be removed, if necessary, and that we mix ourselves in the lab.  The design of the upcoming exhibit, including the layout, mounts and signage, was created by Meghan Budinger and Heather Baldus, the Foundation’s curatorial team.

lid

White salt glaze stoneware lid, 1720-1780. This lid could have been used with any of several different vessels related to serving tea, such as a tea pot, a punch put (a large version of a tea pot), or a tea canister. Tea was an important part of 18th century life, and displaying fine teawares demonstrated social status.

September 2016: Finishing touches…
The white salt-glazed stoneware exhibit is now installed and ready for the enjoyment of our visitors to Ferry Farm. A total of 614 days from report prep to exhibition!

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor