“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

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.

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“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

Video: Tricks of the Trade – Archaeology Lab Edition

Sometimes, it can be a challenge to precisely identify an artifact. When faced with this challenge, archaeologists working in the lab put their five senses to work and call upon some interesting ‘tricks of the trade’ to make those difficult identifications.

Learn more about archaeology and being an archaeologist during Archaeology Day at Ferry Farm on Monday, February 15 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Visit http://www.ferryfarm.org for event details.