Following in the Footsteps of Giants: At George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Mary Washington’s Memorial

by Bernard K. Means, VCU/Virtual Curation Laboratory

As the VCU field school is excavating at the site where George Washington grew up, I’ve felt it important that the students obtain a broader perspective about George Washington and his life.  I’ve particularly wanted to ensure that the students could see how archaeology can contribute to a broader perspective on George Washington’s wider world.  Our first field trip along these lines was to Wakefield, where George Washington was born, and yesterday we traveled to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  George lived at Mount Vernon beginning in 1754 and died there in 1799, although the intervening years saw him occasionally away from Mount Vernon: fighting in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, as well as two terms as first president of the United States of America (and other significant historic events!!).

The journey begins at the University of Mary Washington dorms.

We left the University of Mary Washington dormitories at a time considered horrific by most of the students—7:30 am—and, after a quick stop for coffee, traveled up historic U.S. 1 to Mount Vernon.

Outside the archaeology laboratory.

Outside the archaeology laboratory.

Traffic was unusually light and we arrived at the Mount Vernon archaeological laboratory by 9 a.m., where we were met by Dr. Esther White, Director of Historic Preservation for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA).

Looking at Mount Vernon artifacts.

Looking at Mount Vernon artifacts.

Esther discussed the archaeological program at Mount Vernon, and showed students some of the recent findings from their ongoing excavations.  She also showed us a room where architectural historians examine building materials from the mansion house, using paint analyses and construction details to determine what dates to the Washington era, and what is a later restoration.

Dr. Esther White points out features of a Mount Vernon window.

Dr. Esther White points out features of a Mount Vernon window.

The students and I then joined Esther in the primary storage facility for the archaeological collections.  Esther and I are both on the Council for Virginia Archaeologists (COVA) Collections Committee because we understand the need to maintain good collections, and also because we are strong advocates of the research potential of archaeological collections.

Talking about the Mount Vernon collections with Dr. Esther White.

Talking about the Mount Vernon collections with Dr. Esther White.

We were then joined by Eleanor Breen, Deputy Director of Archaeology (and another key member of the COVA collections committee).  Eleanor took us from the archaeological laboratory over to the Mount Vernon mansion house itself.  She provided us with a thorough introduction to what archaeological and historic architectural research has learned about not only the mansion house, but also the landscape as it existed and was modified according to the vision of George Washington.

Eleanor Breen discusses archaeology and historic preservation at Mount Vernon.

Eleanor Breen discusses archaeology and historic preservation at Mount Vernon.

Our intrepid band of merry archaeologists then went with Eleanor over to their active archaeological investigations, being conducted under the direction of Karen Price, Historic Preservation Laboratory Manager.  Karen was an intern in the summer of 2012 at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and acted as my assistant to that year’s VCU field school.  In fact, my assistant this year for the VCU field school, Ashley McCuistion, was trained by Karen last year.  Karen discussed the biggest challenge to conducting archaeology near the mansion house: utilities!  Utilities from throughout the 20th century—and earlier—criss-cross the landscape below the surface, and they are encountered whenever archaeology is done near the mansion house.  The current excavations at the early dairy and kitchen, as are most of the excavations near the mansion house, are being conducted for compliance purposes—some ground disturbing work needs to be done here to help maintain the mansion house and its surrounding landscape.

Karen Price, far right, discusses the current excavations of the early dairy and kitchen.

Karen Price, far right, discusses the current excavations of the early dairy and kitchen.

We were then very fortunate to be introduced by Eleanor to Deputy Director for Architecture Tom Reinhart.  Tom took us into the “New Room” which was designed by George Washington.  Tom and his team are working to restore the “New Room” to what it would have looked like in Washington’s time—down to the correct paint color.

After a short break for lunch, we took the official tour of the Mount Vernon mansion, using tickets graciously provided by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. It is always interesting contrasting how historic properties are interpreted—especially this iconic property that symbolizes not only a man, but a nation.

Before the face of George Washington.

Before the face of George Washington.

Our return down historic U.S. 1 was uneventful, so we decided to stop by the monument to George Washington’s mother, Mary, located along Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg.  I just learned very recently that Washington Avenue was named after Mary Washington, and was intended originally as a ceremonial route to her monument.

Mother Mary of Washington Memorial

Mother Mary of Washington Memorial

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One thought on “Following in the Footsteps of Giants: At George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Mary Washington’s Memorial

  1. Pingback: VCU @ Ferry Farm 2013 | Can it Be? We are Done with Week 3

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