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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The Wine Bottle: Ubiquitous and Informative

Ah, the humble wine bottle.  There are few historical archaeological sites without them and Ferry Farm is no exception.  Our current mending project has produced about a dozen wine bottles from one Washington house cellar feature alone.  Readily identifiable because their form has changed little in the past 250 years, these beauties are sometimes overlooked in favor of fancier or more exotic artifacts.  However, there is much we can learn from the sherds of wine bottles and much history wrapped up in their existence on colonial sites.

Wine Bottles 1

Mid-18th century bottle neck and base fragments excavated from the Washington house cellar at Ferry Farm.

Let’s start with what wine bottles cannot tell us. They can’t actually tell us whether or not folks were drinking wine.  Huh?  Well, ‘wine’ bottles of the colonial period held anything from vinegar to gin and all liquids in between.   Yes, many contained wine but the modern use of ‘wine’ to describe these bottles, with their tall, cylindrical shape and dark green-colored glass, is really just a reflection of what we exclusively drink from them currently.

Most 18th and 19th century wine bottles held a variety of substances over their lifetimes.  Bottles were not cheap before industrialization made them relatively disposable and were often listed in probate inventories.  Recycling is nothing new.  Your average 18th century household carefully cleaned out each empty bottle for reuse when needed.  The inside was scoured with sand, small pebbles, or lead shot (which is a terrible idea). It is not uncommon to find wine bottles archaeologically that exhibit heavy use wear on the inside and outside from years of being drained, cleaned, refilled and used for storage, serving, and transport.  Truly, the wine bottle was a workhorse.

Wine Bottles 2

An example of what the bottles excavated at Ferry Farm looked when they were whole.

Where did these ever-present bottles come from?  For the most part, from England.  This isn’t surprising given that colonials weren’t really allowed to trade with any other countries.  While there were some early glass houses in the Americas, their production was nowhere near that of England’s well-established glass industry.  The English produced squat and sturdy wine bottles of very dark glass often dubbed ‘black glass’ able to survive shipping across the Atlantic.  They were filled before the trip and used as ballast in the ship, the contents often being worth more than the bottle itself.

For the most part, these ‘black glass’ wine bottles were filled with wine but not the wine that you’re likely familiar with.  Your typical red or white wine would not survive the months-long tumultuous ocean journey (with its extremes of temperature and humidity) from Europe to America. It would be vinegar by the time it arrived, if you were lucky.

However, wine fortified with a hard liquor such as brandy would halt fermentation and oxidation processes and make the wine both transportable AND much higher octane once it arrived for thirsty colonials.  Subsequently, a lot of the wine enjoyed in 18th century America was fortified.  Not only did these fortified wines such as Madeira, port, sherry, Masala, or Malaga survive the nasty voyage across the ocean, they actually tasted better once they reached their destination.  Fortified wines are total masochists and basically thrive under neglect and abuse.  The more rocking of the boat the better.  Fortified wines also love extremes of temperature and humidity.  In fact, bottlers often documented the voyage a particular wine took.  Madeira and Port that traveled south of the equator and then back north again fetched top dollar because they had been exposed to the extreme conditions of the tropics.

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“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

But why import all this wine?  Surely it would have been cheaper and easier to make it locally like most other colonial food and beverages.  Well, the colonists tried….and tried…and tried.  Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the great innovators of his day and a celebrated lover of wine, failed in this task, although not for lack of effort.  It turns out that European grapes do not do well in the Americas and tend to wither from disease and pests.  Additionally, North America’s few native grapes are ill-suited to making fine wine.  It was not until recently in our history as a country that we’ve succeeded in growing hybrid grape varieties that will produce a palatable wine.  We had a much better track record of making wine out of pretty much everything else (dandelions, apples, barley, peaches, quince, and any berry they could get their hands on).  Seeing as it was unimaginable that our founding fathers go without one of their favorite beverages, both wine and wine bottles ended up making their way across the Atlantic in large quantities.

All of this brings us back to the Washington family wine bottles.  Their presence is not a surprise but finding them has us pondering the importance of wine in the colonies, the intricacies of colonial transatlantic trade, and the value of seemingly everyday objects in colonial society.  Of course it’s also fun to contemplate all of the libations they may have held over the years until a careless hand shattered them and banished the bottles to the trash midden where they would await discovery by archaeologists two and a half centuries later.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Grasse, Steven.  Colonial Spirits:  A Toast to Our Drunken History.  Abrams Image, New York.  2016

Hancock, David.  Oceans of Wine:  Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  2009.

Jones, Olive R.  Cylindrical English Wine & Beer Bottles 1735-1850.  Minister of Supply and Services, Canada.  1986.