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

The Unlikely Curator: What a Rodent’s Nest Reveals about Historic Kenmore

Rodents are usually seen as one of a museum’s greatest enemies. They damage valuable artifacts and buildings, leave a mess wherever they go, and frighten unsuspecting visitors. Like most museums, Historic Kenmore does its best to make sure no pests make their home in the 18th century plantation house. But, before it became a museum in the early 20th century, Kenmore was not always rodent-free.

Kenmore's East Portico

The east portico of Historic Kenmore shows some neglect to the house and its surroundings. The Howard family, who lived in Kenmore for a long period following the Civil War and was perhaps living in the house when our rodent of interest built its nest, invested a lot of money in refurbishing the house.

In 1989, archaeologists found a mouse or rat’s nest during an investigation of Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. In a recent video, our archeologists and curators carefully picked apart the nest found so long ago and made a cursory analysis of its parts.  This blog post delves more deeply into the history revealed by this rodent – Kenmore’s unlikely curator – and its nest.

The “indoor excavation” at Kenmore in 1989 provided present-day archaeologists at the Foundation a unique opportunity to study artifacts that rarely survive in the elements. Whatever rodent built this nest was a skilled architect in its own right, tightly weaving together bits of cloth, paper, and miscellaneous fluff from around the house to create a soft, structurally sound home of its own. The material came from dozens of sources, each giving insight to life at Kenmore in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Fabric

Patterned fabric from the nest

When it comes to fabrics, both the people living at Kenmore and the rodent had pretty good taste. While most of the cloth from the nest was a neutral white, beige, or brown, several scraps featured patterns popular from the late 19th through the early 20th century, like a red cloth with cream specks, and another with red and yellow flowers. Most of the cloth in the nest probably came from sheets, towels, or rags, but the few patterned scraps may have once been part of a dress or apron. A few threads are woven around a stiff, curved string, perhaps as part of an eyelet or fastener on a piece of clothing.  Other fibers came from webbing used in upholstering furniture. The rest of the threads, yarn, and fibers are too small to tell where they came from, but it’s clear that the resident rodent had plenty of textiles from which to choose.

Newspaper 1

A series of newspaper ads includes a date of September 6, 1877.

Newspaper 2

A scrap of a cartoon features an old man carrying what appears to be a baby.

A few other gnawings in the nest were less comfortable than threads and cloth. A bit of nutshell, wood splinters, tiny rib bones, and even two insect wings were part of the rodent’s eclectic collection. While these finds make up a small portion of the nest, it appears that the rodent had quite a literary bent. Over a hundred tiny scraps of paper lined the nest. About half of them were marked, while the others have print from books and newspapers. Some of the pieces are so small that not even an entire letter can be seen, but a few are large enough to make out some sentences, determine date of publication, or even identify the book from which the scrap came.

Newspaper 3

A section entitled “Recent Inventions” includes a convertible handbag and seat patented in 1915.

Newspaper 4

An advertisement on the opposite side of the newspaper discusses Christmas Savings funds from Farmers and Merchants State Bank.

One newspaper scrap advertises Christmas saving funds from the Farmer’s and Merchant’s State Bank. On the other side under “Recent Inventions,” Katherine Minehart’s “Combined Hand-bag and Seat” from 1915 is described. A much earlier bit of newspaper announces the opening of a store on September 6, 1877. The scrap from a book may be even older. The words on both sides are Christian lyrics, and were compiled into a book called Union Hymns by the American Sunday School Union. The book and several editions were published in 1835, 1845, and 1860.

Given the short lifespan of most rodents (around 1-7 years), it’s most likely that the nest builder lived in the early 20th century, and scampered off with bits and pieces of discarded old paper and fabric. Except for a few newspapers, this rodent tended to use items with a past. The absence of any plastic in the nest indicates that it probably wasn’t built much past the early 1900s.  Indeed, since the latest scrap found in the nest dated from 1915, the nest itself would have been built in that year or thereafter, just a few years before the house began its transformation into a museum focusing on the lives of 18th century patriots Betty and Fielding Lewis.

The stories of those who lived at Kenmore after the Civil War are not as detailed, but thanks to an unlikely curator, we are given a glimpse into the wardrobes and literary tastes of Kenmore’s late Victorian-era inhabitants.

Abby Phelps, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

An Unlikely Curator: Inside a Historic Rodent’s Nest [Video]

In this video, we pick apart a rodent’s nest discovered by archaeologists investigating Historic Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. Like most museums, we take extensive pest prevention measures today but, back when it was an actual home, Kenmore was not always rodent-free. This nest revealed some fascinating history and told us a bit about Kenmore itself.

(NOTE: The video was filmed long before COVID-19 physical distancing requirements.)