What Is This Artifact?

With building work on the reconstructed Washington family home at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly finished, our archaeologists are in the midst of identifying Washington-owned plates, bowls, glasses, and other household artifacts to be used to furnish the house once construction is finally complete.

While working to identify things, archaeologists sometimes encounter a “mystery artifact” that either can’t be identified or has been altered to serve an unknown purpose from what was originally intended.  We wrote about one especially perplexing mystery artifact almost three years ago.  With that mystery artifact, someone intentionally and for unknown reasons chipped away the edges of that 18th century leaded glass base from a cup or mug to form a disc .

Recently, during analysis of the Washington family’s table glass, Ferry Farm archaeologists discovered another base from an 18th century drinking glass that someone tried to modify by actually breaking or knapping off flakes of glass. It was an apparent attempt to turn the base into a disc. As before, we don’t know for what reason.

Mystery Glass Base

To confirm the glass was knapped, Ferry Farm archaeologists got “science-y” and asked nearby Dovetail Cultural Resource Group in Fredericksburg to take photographs of the glass base using a microscope camera.

Using this microscope camera made the clear glass appear green in the resulting photos.  More importantly, the photos helped us to see flake scars from knapping, which we’ve outlined in black in the photo below, and thus confirm that the glass was actually knapped by someone.

Microscope Photo of Mystery Glass Base

As often happens when studying the past, however, our analysis provided answers but also created many more questions.  Who did the knapping?  Was it perhaps the job of an enslaved worker?  What was the goal?  Why make these modifications?  Although it’s the science of history, even archaeology can’t yet provide answers to these questions.  In fact, we many never have the answers.  In the end, sometimes not knowing is just as much a part of archaeology as knowing.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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Glass Tablewares of the Washington Household

As work continues on the reconstructed Washington family home at Ferry Farm, we archaeologists are continuing to identify items that were owned by the Washingtons so we can eventually fill the reconstructed house with plates, bowls, glasses, and many other objects based on artifacts we’ve discovered.  Our latest mending project towards this goal involves glass tablewares.  Piecing together thousands of fragments of clear tableglass is a special kind of agony but a wonderful amount of data has been collected from this painstaking exercise. And we’re not even close to being done yet!  In this post, I’ve written about three of the glasswares we have identified in our study thus far.

LEAD GLASS BOTTLE

Lead Glass Bottle Neck

Fragment of the neck of a lead glass bottle excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This particular fragment likely belonged to a small decanter or carafe.  It could also possibly be part of a scent bottle, meant to hold perfumes.  It was created using a pattern mold.  The craftsman would have blown the glass into a simple mold with a ribbed pattern and then twisted it to get this diagonal line effect.  He would finish the bottle by adding a separate piece of glass to create the delightful ‘ruffle’ on the neck.  Below is an example of what the whole vessel may have looked like.  Hopefully, we’ll find more fragments and know precisely what this piece is soon!

Lead Glass Bottle

Lead glass bottle showing the ruffled neck on the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm.

FLIP CUP

Flip Cup (1)

Portions of a flip cup dug up by Ferry Farm archaeologists.

If you google ‘flip cup’, the first image result is a large red plastic cup commonly associated with college parties.  The original flip cups were far more aesthetically pleasing. However, they too were used to enjoy recreational beverages.  The drink called flip was the original cocktail and needed its own fancy glassware.  Colonists loved flip and made it by combining a  bizarre (by our modern standards) mixture of beer, hard liquor, spices such as nutmeg, a raw egg (a not uncommon ingredient in eighteenth century drinks), and then immersing a hot iron poker into the concoction.  This resulted in a delightfully lukewarm eggy, boozy beverage that was then decanted into a decorative tumbler – the flip cup.  While these cups were not only used for flip, the name has stuck. They are delicate and were often engraved with elaborate designs or scenes using a copper wheel.  At Ferry Farm, we have a number of archaeological fragments of flip cups.  Our examples are made of soda lime glass, not leaded glass, which is common.

Flip Cup (2)

Flip cup in the collection at Historic Kenmore. It features the same design as the fragments discovered at Ferry Farm.

VENETIAN GLASS

Venetian Glass

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.

This fragment represents what may be the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family during their time at Ferry Farm.  It is a piece of a pincered and buttressed handle that belonged on a vessel such as the beautiful goblet pictured below.  Although the sherd may appear unassuming, it is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  This would certainly have been a show piece and displayed prominently within the house.

91.1.1442

The portion of the handle circled in red on this 16th century Venetian glass goblet is similar to the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Follow Lives & Legacies for updates on the Washington family’s glasswares we are identifying at Ferry Farm. More discoveries await!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist