by Vivian Hite, VCU student
Early Monday morning we piled into two waiting red cars and began our trip to George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon. Upon our arrival we were greeted by Dr. Ester White at the lab on site. We perused the artifacts sitting on the counter and compared them with our own Washington artifacts. After explanation of the past and present archaeological digs, we toured the facility. An especially interesting part of the visit was the architecture curation room where they were evaluating and refurbishing a window from the “New Room”, which is entirely under renovation. The neighboring room was their storage facility containing boxes upon boxes of artifacts; each accurately labeled and stacked 3 by 3. We briefly discussed historical collections and the difficulty of storage and then we were off to the site.
We met up with Karen Price, a former VCU field teaching assistant and Ferry Farm intern. She explained their current work and the methods and processes they use at Mount Vernon, especially compared to Ferry Farm. Despite the difference in location, material culture found, and other oddities, some things remained constant. The utility trenches that they were encountering at Mount Vernon, though more abundant, was not so different from Ferry Farms and the project goals both centered on locating out buildings. The dissimilarities from the Washington sites just add to the wealth of knowledge of George Washington and help form a more accurate and well-rounded understanding of the man himself.
We were all excited to get back to the site and resume our antebellum layer. Using the profile from the utility trench we could tell that the layer was rather thick and so we were hoping for ample artifacts. The other groups began to find wig curlers setting the race for the most. As we shoveled through the rocks and soil we found artifacts ranging in description. Glass fragments and nails, a hinge of some sort, and ceramic sherds of all varieties. As we screened and cleaned the pieces, we couldn’t help but become anxious for the ceramics lecture in the morning. It would help so much to learn what we were sticking to our tongues.
We filed into an upper level room in the main house on Wednesday morning and prepared ourselves for the wave of information coming our way. Pencils and notebook poised we began the three hour lecture on ceramics and glass. As we compared, contrasted, jumped through time, and traveled to different countries we started to understand. And then we began another slide. The different types, the copycats, high quality versus low quality, and the varying shades of “white” blurred in our minds as we attempted to keep it all straight.
Thankfully, Ms. Kaktins, our lecturer and ceramic specialist, provided us with type collections of each ceramic, encouraged questions, and gave helpful hints. By the end of the lecture we were ready to go back outdoors and find some sherds to identify. Sadly our unit missed the memo.
After completing the Antebellum and beginning the colonial we were hopeful as to what artifacts we might find. Older and possibly George’s old things were lying in the ground awaiting us. Just not for us. We shoveled and troweled and still nothing came out. We ended the day with under 5 artifacts and an unsettling feeling that our trench was making a return.
Driving to the site we feared the rain. As a whole, we were all anxiously waiting to close our units and start something new and if that new unit held 40 wig curlers then all the better. Ashley greeted us that morning and corralled us into the discovery room of the main house. We were briefed on how to fill out unit summaries and then we were each given a unit from last year. As a whole the experience proved helpful. We began to understand how our context forms help to shape the bigger picture.
After finishing our units, we were directed upstairs where Laura gave her famous small finds and Mary Ball and George Washington talk. In all the morning proved informative and couldn’t have occurred at a better point in our field session. We were all getting close to the end of our colonial layers and understanding how things fit together not to mention how our current findings in our little 5 ft. by 5 ft. units would move up the knowledge ladder and into lectures presented to those much wiser was eye opening.
By 12:30p we were back outside and ready to go. Each unit with its own direction, we gathered the necessary supplies. While some were getting photo ready so as to move to their final steps, our unit became lined with shovels. The trench was back. Realizing that our utility trench had not gone deep enough we began to dig. After sifting through rocks covered in a new sludge-like soil thanks to the rain, we eventually brought the trench into subsoil. And then Thursday was complete.
Friday morning was very dejá-vu. It was raining yet again and so we began our third morning indoors. We worked on unit summaries again however it was our own units we began to compile. After only a half hours work, we were pleasantly surprised we were allowed back into the field. There we worked towards completing our colonial layer. As we dug and dug the soil became increasing red and clay like and we were sure we had hit subsoil. We compared the depth of our unit to others and despite us being deeper we kept finding the slightest amount of artifacts. Charcoal to be exact. As I began to trowel, I noticed that the charcoal was all coming from one corner, the South East edge. After badgering Ashley to look at our unit for the 100th time that day, she noticed that we were most definitely in subsoil. The Eastern wall had a soil stain running into it that held the charcoal bits. After consulting with Eric and then Laura, my stain had a name. Feature 47. At the time I couldn’t tell what I was most excited about, having a non-20th century feature in my unit or that I had finally hit subsoil.