Some Like it Hot …But Probably Not This Hot: The Archaeology of a (BIG!) Fire

Twenty years ago, archaeologists digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm unearthed the remains of a mid-eighteenth century kitchen.  It was immediately obvious from the state of the artifacts that this kitchen had not simply fallen into to ruin and been abandoned – it had burned down.  While this is fairly interesting in and of itself, a reexamination of the kitchen fire artifacts this year revealed surprising information about the intensity of the fire.

Map of Kitchen Site

Overhead image of George Washington’s Ferry Farm showing location of the kitchen that burnt down in the 18th century. Credit: Google

What first struck us was the sheer density of artifacts in this kitchen. We recovered A LOT of artifacts.  Furthermore, these broken sherds could be mended to form almost whole bottles, crocks, jugs, pans, and such.  The number of artifacts and the fact they could be put together to form entire objects tell us that the Washington family and their slaves did not have much, if any, time to salvage what was inside the burning kitchen.  Food, wine bottles, food storage and preparation vessels and utensils, furniture, and more all destroyed exactly where they stood.  Think of this kitchen as a mini Pompeii or Titanic. Just about everything that the Washington’s had in their kitchen went down with the ship and was still there, just squished and burned.

A preserved moment in time like this fire is a great opportunity for archaeologists to study the Washingtons but it comes with one big problem—most of the artifacts were totally cooked and absolutely toasted beyond recognition in some cases.  Soft metal artifacts made from lead and copper, for example, were reduced to melted blobs by the fire.  Ceramic vessels appear to have exploded from the heat and were reduced to blackened sherds.  Some of the glass bottles survived with a minimal amount of warping from heat but the majority were melted or even burned in a process called ‘devitrification’.  And oddly enough there was very little animal bone, which is usually ubiquitous in kitchens found archaeologically.

To put the intensity of this kitchen fire in context here are some quick statistics (in Fahrenheit):

  • Lead melts at 621.4 degrees.
  • According to the National Institute of Fire and Safety Training, the average modern house fire tops out at around 1,100 degrees.
  • 1,400-1,800 degrees is the temperature at which bone will be destroyed
  • Copper melts at 1,984 degrees
  • Glass melts between 2,600 and 2,800 degrees.

Since the Washington kitchen fire was hot enough to actually burn glass, not just melt it, we’re looking at a fire that likely exceeded 2,800 degrees.  That’s incredible!  It also explains why there was so little animal bone recovered. Most bone was probably completely destroyed by the flames.

Extremely Burned Tin Glaze

Extremely burned tin glaze ceramic recovered from the kitchen site at Ferry Farm.

Devitrified Glass

Devitrified glass from the burnt Washington kitchen

Melted Cooper Alloy

Melted copper alloy excavated from the Ferry Farm kitchen

Blob of Lead Alloy

Blobs of lead alloy recovered from the kitchen site

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Slightly burned wine bottle from the kitchen

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A second slightly burned wine bottle

So, how on earth did the fire get that hot?  We’ll probably never know, unfortunately.  Some possible explanations may be the environmental conditions at the time of the blaze – a hot dry day with high winds could produce a perfect storm for a wooden kitchen to turn into an inferno.  The fire also may have started at night when few people were awake to notice and try to put it out, although presumably the kitchen housed enslaved people, as was common for that time period.  Another culprit may have been what was kept in the kitchen.  There were dozens of wine bottles in there. While we call them ‘wine’ bottles today, they were actually all-purpose vessels that held any kind of spirituous liquid including harder alcohol like gin, whiskey, and rum, which are highly combustible.  Animal products such as lard, tallow, beeswax, and even whale oil for lamps were likely stored in the kitchen and all burn quite well for long periods of time.

Regardless of the fire’s cause, it is clear from archaeological evidence that it happened quickly because not much within the structure could be saved, if anything.  We also know that it burned extremely hot and for a sustained period of time in order to have caused so much damage to the items within.

Finally, perhaps, the last and the biggest mystery is where the replacement kitchen was located.  Kitchens were almost all outbuildings because, as you may have deduced, they tended to catch on fire easily.  A colonial household absolutely required a kitchen, however, and another would have been built almost immediately. Somewhere on the landscape at Ferry Farm, there is another kitchen waiting to be discovered archaeologically.

In the meantime, The George Washington Foundation plans to reconstruct the original Washington era kitchen so visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of an eighteenth century kitchen, minus the blazing inferno, of course.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

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Kenmore’s Kitchen: Then & Now

The brick kitchen building next to Historic Kenmore is not original to the property. It was built in the 1930s in the colonial revival architectural style popular at that time.

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The brick construction does not reflect the kitchen building seen in the earliest known photo of such a building at Kenmore.  That image, taken around the time of the Civil War, shows a large wooden kitchen to the north of the house as well two enslaved people standing in the kitchen yard.

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The wooden kitchen can be seen to the left of the house in this Civil War-era photograph.

The Kenmore Association, a group of women who saved the mansion and transformed the property into a historic site open to the public, built the brick kitchen in the 1930s.

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Inside the brick kitchen just after construction was completed in the 1930s.

Throughout much of the 20th century, visitors sat around the table in the photo above to enjoy gingerbread and tea served by the ladies of the Kenmore Association.

Recently, we decided to highlight these ladies and their efforts to preserve Kenmore even more during our tours. We felt the most logical of places to do this was in the kitchen where they served their famed gingerbread and tea.

We placed a tea set and faux gingerbread on the same table used to serve visitors for so many years. We surrounded that table with many of the same ladderback chairs, though most of their seats have been re-caned. We returned some of the china and the china cupboard that had stood for so long in the kitchen back to that space.

While we cannot serve actual gingerbread and tea – modern-day museum guidelines prohibit food service inside historic structures – we can discuss the Kenmore Association’s monumental efforts to save Kenmore and make the mansion accessible to the public. You can read about these efforts here.  Although it does not date back to Kenmore’s very beginning, the 80-year-old brick kitchen is still a part of the site’s centuries-long story.