Video: The Science of History – Experimental Archaeology & Earth Oven Cooking

Archaeologists sometimes recreate technology from the past to understand how people lived. This is called experimental archaeology. In this video, we recreate an earth oven and cook catfish in it.

Watch our other experimental archaeology videos: episode one and episode two.

Video: The Science of History – Experimental Archaeology & Stoneboiling

Archaeologists sometimes recreate technology from the past to understand how people lived. This is called experimental archaeology. Native American occupation of Ferry Farm left behind many artifacts including fire-cracked rocks. This video shows how those rock artifacts were made through a cooking technique known as stoneboiling.

See the first video in our Science of History series here.

George Toasts George?

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm we’ve just wrapped up a ceramic mending project.  We explain how and why we undertake these mending projects in this post.  Our most recent effort focused on Westerwald stonewares owned by the Washington family.  Stoneware is a high-fired, non-porous ceramic that is excellent for producing storage containers and drinking vessels.  But what is a Westerwald, you may ask?  Well, Westerwald stonewares were a ceramic produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s.  Destined for the British Isles and British colonial markets, this particular ceramic is common to archaeological sites in the Chesapeake region.

Westerwalds were salt-glazed, meaning that during the firing process large quantities of salt were introduced into the kiln.  The salt vitrified (converted into a glass-like substance) upon contact with the vessels, producing a shiny glaze and a characteristic ‘orange peel’ texture on the surface of the pots.  Decorated predominantly with molded and incised designs that are filled with bright cobalt blue and deep purple, Westerwalds are strikingly beautiful.

Jug with a bird motif.

We’ve learned a great deal from analyzing the Westerwalds used by the Washingtons.  Many of the vessels identified in the Ferry Farm assemblage were tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels from which beverages such as ale and cider, a large part of the colonial diet, were consumed.  Some tankard handles we’ve excavated have small holes at the top, where a pewter lid — a distinguishing characteristic of German-made steins — was attached.  These lids often do not survive in the archaeological record because the metal had value.  Rather than being discarded, the pewter was often recycled.

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, Westerwald drinking vessels often served a political purpose.  An excellent example of this is to be found within our assemblage of Westerwalds in the form of multiple mugs emblazoned with the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George.  During the time Westerwalds were produced in Germany, three British kings were named George.  Interestingly, however, all three came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714.  For Americans, of course, the most famous of these Hanover kings was George III.

Sprig decorated G.R. medallion on a jug fragment.

Thus, a gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale.  A night of drinking involved numerous toasts “To the King’s Health!”  It was not unheard of for dozens of toasts to be recited for the king, his family, and anyone else of political interest the imbibers saw fit to honor.  Toasts and drinking vessels were also utilized to express disagreement with political powers.  Politics and drinking definitely went hand-in-hand in the colonies.  Once George Washington became a public figure, there were toasts such as “To General Washington, and victory to the American arms!” to honor him.

The presence of these initialed Westerwalds at Ferry Farm show that until the Revolution the Washington family, like most Americans, viewed themselves as loyal subjects of the British Crown.  Indeed, many families in Fredericksburg would have owned such mugs and toasted their monarch prior to the war.  In fact, several ‘G.R.’ vessels have also been excavated at Historic Kenmore, the home of George Washington’s sister, Betty.  The people of Ferry Farm, Kenmore, and Fredericksburg found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Colonial men – whether gentry, tradesman, or servants – pursued homes, professions, pleasures, and possessions that conveyed their status, wealth, and English identities.  One such possession that emphasized this identity was Westerwald drinking vessels.

Hollowware fragments with an unknown motif.

One has to wonder what became of these mugs once the Revolution began.  Did Loyalists quietly stash away some of their ‘G.R.’ mugs once the tide of war went against them?  Perhaps some tankards and jugs were smashed publically by Patriots in a ritual different from their intended purpose of toasting but no less a political act than those toasts had been.  Nevertheless, it is intriguing to picture a young George Washington drinking heartily from a ‘G.R.’ mug and toasting a king against whom he would lead a revolution.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist/Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore”

Today – January 6 – marks the end of Christmas or, at least, it did two centuries ago.   If we lived in the days of George Washington, Betty Washington Lewis, and Fielding Lewis and moved within their social circle, we would all be preparing for the grandest celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which began on December 25.  This grand event, known as Twelfth Night, was celebrated much in the same way that many of us mark New Year’s Eve with family and friends gathered together for food, drink, sweets, music, dancing, games, and conversation.

This past weekend, Historic Kenmore hosted just such a celebration in the form of a theatrical presentation titled “Twelfth Night at Kenmore.”  Set in January 1776, as Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis end their first Christmas in their newly built home, “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” depicted an unusual seasonal celebration, as the growing American Revolution brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and members of the enslaved community.

Historical Holiday Cheer

In the colonial-era, the Christmas season lasted into January and concluded on Twelfth Night, a festive evening to mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrated much like our New Year’s Eve is today.  While the entire period featured frequent banquets and balls with much food and spirits, Twelfth Night was especially known for its revelry.

Just as we do today, many colonial Americans got into the holiday ‘spirit’ with a glass of something special and warming on Twelfth Night.  Special drinks called for distinctive mugs, glasses, and containers that were both functional and designed to impress your party guests.  In these containers, early Americans enjoyed familiar festive beverages like eggnog, hot chocolate, hot toddies, and punch.  At the same time, some of their holiday drinks are now a thing of the past or perhaps only enjoyed by those imbibers with an appreciation for history.

Many of these holiday beverages were created out of a desire to preserve the taste of fresh fruits harvested in the summer and fall so they could be enjoyed during the winter months.  Cherry ‘Bounce’ is a great example of this – in addition to being fun to say!  Easy to make, cherry bounce was started in the early summer when the fruit is ripe.  Fresh cherries (traditionally of the sour variety) were placed in bottles and topped off with brandy then stored for as long as you could stand to wait.  Leaving the fruit to infuse as long as possible increased the flavor and lent a lovely red color to the brandy.  The decanted off-flavored brandy was mixed with sugar and spices.  Martha Washington possessed a recipe for cherry bounce that included cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg and George Washington was said to have loved it so much that he took some in a canteen with him on a trip over the Allegheny Mountains in 1784.

Copper wheel engraved wine glass.

Copper wheel engraved wine glass.

Syllabub is another colonial beverage that has been forgotten.  Originating in England, this odd-sounding half-dessert, half-cocktail, was created by combining spirts such as wine, sherry, ale or cider with fresh milk – preferably so fresh that it had just come out of the cow and was still warm!  In fact, some recipes stated that a maid should milk the cow directly into a pan of your chosen spirit.  Unfortunately, this technique probably also resulted in some ‘barn yard’ material ending up in the concoction.  Sugar, spices and possibly citrus were then added.  While there are many versions of syllabubs, it often involved a frothy mixture of whipped egg whites, curd or cream that can be spooned off and eaten while you drink the liquid whey that separates beneath.  Served in a conical glass and sometimes displayed on a pyramid-shaped dessert tray with colorful jellies, syllabub made for a very festive holiday drink.

A Copper Wheel engraved dessert/fortified wine glass used to serve syllabub.

While many people may not have heard of syllabub and cherry bounce, wassail is a term that most are familiar with even if they’re not entirely sure what it is.  Actually, wassail was both a beverage and an activity.  Similar to today’s mulled ciders and wine, wassail was often served from a punch bowl passed around from person to person in an act of sharing and celebration.  The old Christmas carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing” describes the act of going from house to house singing and wishing good cheer while also sipping the punch-like drink composed of hot wine or ale mixed with spices, apples and sometimes topped with bread or toast.  But before you condemn our ancestors for drinking odd things, just think what future generations might think of what we consume today.  And perhaps try a colonial holiday beverage or two this Twelfth Night and evoke the spirit of holidays past!

Hand-blown mug for hot beverages such as wassail.

You can experience a dramatic theater presentation depicting a Twelfth Night celebration (minus the alcohol) at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, January 3 or Sunday, January 4.  Reservations are required and can be made by calling 540-370-0732 x24 or emailing hayes@gwffoundation.org.  Visit the events page on http://www.kenmore.org for more information!

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist, Ceramics and Glass Specialist

Christmas in Fredericksburg with George Washington, 1769

Six-year-old George Washington and his family moved to the land we call Ferry Farm late in 1738, perhaps even in time to mark Christmas in their new home.  If so, it was the first of many.  George lived at Ferry Farm into young adulthood.  Interestingly, the best documented Christmas he spent in Fredericksburg was actually in 1769, long after his boyhood years, and it paints a picture of the holiday as typically celebrated in Virginia, past and present.

George Washington at age 40 in 1772, three years after the Christmas of 1769. By J.W. Paradise (engraving) from a picture by J.G. Chapman after Charles Wilson Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

After the House of Burgesses recessed, 36-year-old George Washington left Williamsburg for home on December 21, 1769.  Instead of traveling all the way to Mount Vernon, he stopped in Fredericksburg on December 23 and stayed in town through Christmas.  He arrived at “4 Oclock in the Aftern.” and went to the home of his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis. In 1769, the Lewis family did not yet live in the brick home we call Kenmore.  Instead, they were located near the present-day corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets.  That evening, George “ding. [dined] at Colo. Lewis” and he and Fielding may have been joined by George’s sister Betty, his young nephews George, Charles, Samuel, Lawrence, Robert, and his niece Betty.  Christmas was a period of rest that Virginians used for long visits and large meals with family and friends.  The meals amounted to feasts and a Christmas meal at Mount Vernon once featured, for example, “an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkey, ducks, fowls, hams &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, & a variety of wines & punch. . .”[1]

On Christmas Eve, which was a Sunday, George “Went to Prayers, & dined afterwds. at Colo. Lewis.”  The prayer service he attended probably took place at St. George’s Church, an wooden structure located on the site of today’s St. George’s Episcopal Church. Many colonial Virginians combined the holiday’s religious nature with secular activities such as parties, much as we do today.  Washington was no different.  After his morning at church, he passed the evening in Julian’s Tavern with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm, where George’s mother Mary still lived.  This tavern was located at the corner of Amelia and Caroline Streets.

Christmas Day was spent with the Lewis family and George won 2 pounds and 5 shillings playing cards.  Card playing for money was another aspect of Christmas carousing enjoyed by Virginians, whether men, women, or children.  Popular games included whist (similar to bridge), and piquet (similar to rummy) and were great ways to pass the time when visiting family and friends during Christmas.

On December 26, Washington prepared to continue his journey home by going to to the barber and paying for repairs to his carriage.  Before leaving, though, he again “Dined at Colo. Lewis” and then “went over the River and logd at my Mothers” for his final night in Fredericksburg.  After giving Mary 6 pounds in cash, George left Ferry Farm on the 27th and arrived home at Mount Vernon on December 28.

The Christmas season of the colonial era lasted much longer than ours does, extending into January and concluding on Twelfth Night, a festive evening to mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrated much like our New Year’s Eve is today.  During the first days of 1770 at Mount Vernon, Washington and his family continued visiting friends and hosted two dinners, including one on Twelfth Night.  It appears to have been a relatively subdued affair with only immediate family and four or five neighbors.  Three years later, on January 6, 1773, he had at least fourteen guests, excluding his own family, at a Twelfth Night celebration.

Christmas 1769 was one of many that George Washington spent in Fredericksburg.  It is the only one for which he recorded his activities, however.  He spent time with family, he enjoyed several good meals, he went to church, he drank at a local tavern, he won some money at cards, and he attended or hosted several celebratory gatherings.  All-in-all, his was a Christmas spent in ways not all that different from the ways many of us will spend our own holidays.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Theophilus Bradbury quoted in Laura F. Winner, A Cheerful & Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010: 130.