Five Cool Ancient Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm [Photos]

Fredericksburg is famous for its colonial and Civil War history – but what about before that history?  Decades of archaeological excavations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm have revealed millennia of human development and technology from pre-historic Native American Clovis spearpoints to 18th-century wig curlers and beyond.  While our main focus rests on young George Washington’s story, nearly 25% of all artifacts ever found at Ferry Farm have actually been Native American in origin with many dating thousands of years into the past.  Here are five cool ancient artifacts found at Ferry Farm…

Jasper Drill: The above is the tip of a jasper drill.  It may have been adapted from a spear point, which was not uncommon.  When a spear point broke or became too short from re-sharpening sometimes they were turned into other tools.  This particular drill likely dates to around 8,000 BCE to 6,000 BCE.

Clovis Point: Also, jasper, this spear point (shown above) is our oldest artifact and dates to between 13,500 BCE – 11,000 BCE.  To learn more about it, visit our previous blog post here.

Ground Stone Axes: These two axes (depicted above) were found together.  They’re made of Catoctin metabasalt, which is also often called ‘greenstone’.  They were in use from 3000 BCE – 1000 BCE.

Mystery Bead: This large partial bead (shown in the two photos above) is a bit of a conundrum.  It’s made from non-local sandstone and is heavily weathered.  To further the mystery, it was found with the stone axes discussed above and the chunkey stone discussed below, leaving us to believe these artifacts were part an amateur archaeologist’s collection and may not have been brought here by people indigenous to Virginia.

Chunkey Stone: The doughnut-shaped stone (in the above photo) is made from quartzite and is part of a game called chunkey which was invented around 600 CE.  To learn more about our chunkey stone, check out our recent blog post here.

See these and other artifacts during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Techology at Ferry Farm this Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm.  Enjoy a family-friendly day focused on early human technology! Scheduled demonstrations by members of EXARC, a global network of experimental archaeology professionals and other experts, include flint knapping, throwing spears using atlatls, making Viking glass beads, 18th century stone carving, and much more.  Experimental Archaeology demonstrations begin at 11am.  Dive into hands-on activities like an archaeological dig, see a sampling of the thousands of Native American artifacts excavated at Ferry Farm, and visit with members of the Patawomeck tribe.  Admission is $9 for adults, $4.50 for students,  and free for under age 6.  To learn more, visit ferryfarm.org.

When Games are Serious Business: Chunkey

Sometimes games are just fun but sometimes games can make you or break you. This is the case with chunkey, a Native American game.  Invented around 600 AD by indigenous peoples of the Cahokia region (near modern day St. Louis, Missouri), chunkey was a popular game that spread across much of North America.  There were variations in the rules, depending on the cultures playing it, but the basic premise was that a large ground stone disc (a chunkey) was rolled across a level field by a player. One or multiple players from the opposing side would then throw sticks (also called chunkey) underhanded at the stone, aiming to get as close as possible or to touch the stone once it stopped rolling.  Chunkey stones took time to make, were considered valuable, and were often communal property of a village.

Although the game could be played casually, Chunkey tournaments were a big deal with much pageantry and costumes, often drawing people from far away to participate and watch.  Think of it as an ancient Super Bowl.  Gambling was common at these events with players risking everything, including their honor, on the outcome.  Reportedly some unfortunate defeated players killed themselves after a loss.

Chunkey continued to be played after Europeans arrived in North America and was subsequently documented by some who frequented the events.  However, sometime in the mid-19th century, the game lost favor, likely as a result of the decimation of indigenous cultures by those same Europeans.

“Tchung-kee, a Mandan Game Played with a Ring and Pole” (1832-3) by George Catlin depicts Native Americans playing chunkey. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

This brings us to the chunkey stone excavated at Ferry Farm.  Visitors who see it immediately note that it looks like a stone doughnut.  Personally I believe it to be one of our coolest artifacts.

Chunkey stone excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Oddly enough, this chunkey was found suspiciously close to three other prehistoric artifacts, not all of which belong on an archaeological site in Virginia.  Two stone axes and an odd bead were recovered right next to the chunkey in soils that were plowed which caused the mixing of artifacts from different time periods.  The axes date to the late archaic period (3,000 BCE – 1,000 BC) while the chunkey stone, as stated above is thousands of years younger.  Additionally, the bead, which is still a bit of a mystery, is a type of sandstone not found in Virginia.

So does this mean that indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago were playing chunkey on a site that would eventually be George Washington’s home?  Maybe…but maybe not.  When you add all of these factors together it starts to look more and more like these items were collected in the historic period and did not necessarily belong to any tribes living at Ferry Farm. The English and their colonists were prodigious collectors of natural and Native American artifacts.  Famous colonial collectors include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The chunkey stone and these other Native American artifacts are still very cool finds but definitely a reminder that removing artifacts from their original location without preserving their context greatly limits how archaeologists can interpret them.  And, in this case, may throw archaeologists a bit of a curve ball …er, a curve chunkey!

Play a version of chunkey during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Technology at Ferry Farm on Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm.  For more details, visit kenmore.org.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Ten Cool But Rarely-Exhibited Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm

When you enter a museum you’re surrounded by cool stuff.  Be it paintings, fossils, or ancient artifacts, they’re all special items that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.  But what if I told you that the cool objects you see on display in a museum are a mere fraction of what most museums actually have in their collections?  There is just never enough room, even for the biggest museums, to display everything.  Additionally, some items are just too delicate to make available to the public.  This is one of the reasons I love my job.  My fellow archaeologists and I get a daily backstage pass to all the incredibly cool things excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  Here’s our list of “Ten Cool But Rarely-Exhibited Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm.” Be sure to click on any of the photos for more detailed views of the artifacts.

Wine Bottle Seal
wine-bottle-seal
Starting in the 17th century if you were a wealthy gentleman or tavern owner chances are you ordered at least a few custom wine bottles complete with your personal seal.  The seals were stamped in various ways, such as with names, initials, symbols, crests, and dates.  Archaeologists love them because they’re ‘talky,’ meaning the artifact yields lots of information.  A fragmentary bottle seal was found here in 2004 and bears the incomplete name of its owner. The letters visible are either a capital “I” or “J” (the English used the letter I for J), and below that are the letters “-bin”.   These few letters might refer to someone in the Corbin family, an extensive Virginia family with local ties. With a little investigation, perhaps we can flush out who was the mystery guest that brought his own bottle of wine for a visit to Ferry Farm!

Lead Whistle
lead-whistle
Instruments and toys tend to grab our imagination because they make us think about who used them and how the object got lost to time and archaeology.  In our collection we have a simple lead whistle, measuring 1 7/8” long and 3/8” in diameter, with “U.S.A.” stamped on the side.  It’s cheaply made out of lead, which was a very inexpensive material that has, for obvious reasons, been phased out of the toy industry.  In the “Good Ol’ Days”, no one thought twice about making an instrument you put in your mouth out of lead.  Maybe it’s a good thing that the person who owned the whistle lost it.

Chunkey Stone
chunkey-stone
Fun to say.  Fun to play.  Basically a prehistoric rock doughnut, this hand-ground stone was used in a Mississippian Indian game called “Chunkey.”  Warriors rolled disc-shaped stones across the ground and threw spears as close to the stone as possible.  Similar to the Italian game of bocce, but unlike the Italians who threw wooden balls, Chunkey players threw spears, which is pretty awesome.  It’s a bit of a mystery as to how it got to Ferry Farm because there is no evidence that Chunkey was played in eastern Virginia, however some of these gaming stones have been excavated in Maryland and Northern Virginia.   It is also possible that one of Ferry Farm’s colonial inhabitants collected this exotic looking artifact for their cabinet of curiosities.

“Joseph” bottle fragment
joseph-bottle-fragment
Normally broken bottle glass would have trouble finding its way onto any top ten list, but this fragment is one of a kind.  Its owner inscribed his name “Joseph” and the date “174?” into the body of the bottle. That’s not an easy or common thing to do.  The inscription is carved in an elegant and beautiful form indicating a gentry status for its owner.  While no occupant of Ferry Farm was named Joseph, Mary Ball Washington’s older brother bore that name.

Joseph Ball, though living in England, was heavily involved with Ferry Farm.  He absentee owned and operated a neighboring plantation.  Joseph was lavish in both his gifts and advice to the Washingtons.  He gave Betty, George’s sister, a beautiful silver tea set just before she married.  He offered Mary advice on how to keep George out of the Royal Navy when a plan was hatched to put the then 13-year-old onboard a ship. And maybe, just maybe, he sent over a special bottle of wine with his name engraved on it for the Washington family.

Lead Toy Hatchet
toy-hatchet
More lead toys?  Yep.  This little beauty has special significance to Ferry Farm because of the cherry tree myth.  The 3-inch lead hatchet appears to be a souvenir made during the 20th century, possibly dropped during 1932’s anniversary celebration of George Washington’s birth.  Keepsakes associated with George and the cherry tree abound in Fredericksburg.  Previous private owners of Ferry Farm were known to capitalize on the history of the property, often selling fragments of the ‘original cherry tree’ and cherry seeds to visitors. This hatchet is an obvious symbol recalling the cherry tree story that is so closely associated with Washington’s childhood.

Milk Glass Darning Egg
darning-egg
Recovered completely intact from an old burrow belonging to a groundhog, this artifact had multiple uses on a 19th and 20th century homestead.  The glass egg was a darning aid used to fill out a sock while it was repaired or could be placed in a henhouse to encourage the ladies to lay eggs in a particular spot. There is also a persistent myth that these eggs were used to kill snakes. The snake would eat the glass egg, it was believed, which would then shatter inside them.  This line of reasoning ignores the fact that snakes hunt by detecting chemical signatures of their prey and that snakes can’t really see the egg-like shape of our artifact because of their poor vision.  But it’s a story that highlights the mythology that surrounds some objects once they fade into obscurity.

Tambour Hook
tambour-hook
The tambour hook falls into the category of artifacts that are a little too fragile to display.  Made of carved bone and metal, this exceptional object was used by a gentlewoman, probably George’s sister Betty, to adorn fabric with elaborate embroidery.  Recovered from the bottom-most soil level of the Washingtons’ root cellar where it was deposited sometime between 1741 and 1760, the carved designs that cover the bone handle feature a parrot, leaves, flowing vines, and numerous flowers and represent some of the most popular embroidery themes of the time.  This hook helps demonstrates the fashionability of the Washington women, which contradicts the portrait painted by many modern biographers.

Pewter Teaspoon with Betty Washington’s Initials
teaspoon-fragment-with-betty-initials-1
Betty had some of the coolest artifacts and this one literally has her name on it.  It was customary for tea to be dispensed by the wife or by the oldest daughter in the house and Betty, as the only daughter, was clearly groomed in this ceremony as is evidenced by her own teaspoons.  Pewter, an alloy containing a number of different metals including lead (yes, more lead), wasn’t as fancy as silver but the fact that it’s customized makes it special.  This tea set appears to be part of a “practice” set that Betty used before her uncle gave her a silver tea set  around her 16th birthday.

Bartmann or Bellarmine Jug/Bottle
bartmann-bottle-1
Who doesn’t want to drink out of a jug exhibiting the large face of a crazy bearded man?  I do, and if you were a colonist in the 1700s and early 1800s, you did as well.  Originating in Germany, these face jugs depicted a ‘wild man’ of the woods character popular in Eastern European folklore. By the time these vessels made it to the English market that aspect seems to have been forgotten.  Subsequently, the English created their own story behind the bearded man revolving around their dislike for a similarly-bearded and unpopular anti-protestant cardinal by the name of Robert Bellarmine.  For more about this artifact, read this blog post.

Repaired Creamware Cherry and Flower Punchbowl
punchbowl
This artifact is cool for so many reasons.  A beautiful bowl adorned with graceful hand painted flowers and cherries (remember, we love those here), it also exhibits a complicated and tortured use-life while highlighting the importance of punch drinking in the eighteenth century.  Written about here, this bowl was owned by Mary Washington, George’s mother.  Punch bowls vary in size and this one would have been called a ‘sneaker’, which denotes a bowl small enough for guests to take turns sipping out of it before passing it to the next person.  Mary clearly loved the bowl so much that, when it broke sometime between 1765 and 1772, she had it repaired with glue.  Although the hide or cheese-based glue used would not have resulted in a vessel capable of holding punch again, she could display it on her mantle or in her china cabinet…Oh, and the glaze? It has lead in it.

Laura Galke, Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
Judy Jobrack, Assistant Lab Supervisor
Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Melanie Marquis, Lab Supervisor
Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology