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Rain or shine: Digging comes first

Kevin Ambrose

January was a cold and snowy month in Colonial Williamsburg, but the wintry weather didn’t prevent archaeologists from digging in the colonial capital. Three archaeological digs are ongoing, at Custis Square, First Baptist Church and the Magazine.

On February 11, I met with Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Archaeology Jack Gary to discuss his excavations, discoveries and how various types of weather affect digging. Gary’s team has been working in Williamsburg for three years, so they’ve dealt with all kinds of weather.

Their greatest weather-related challenge this winter was removing ice from the tarps, which cover the dig site at night and during days when it rains or snows. “Ice slabs on tarps are heavy,” remarked archaeology field technician Cheyenne Johnson who is pictured above holding a large chunk of ice.

But staying warm while digging in winter is also a challenge. “Wearing lots of layers and using hand warmers helps,” Gary said.

So far, low temperatures haven’t slowed down excavations this winter, because the ground hasn’t frozen beyond a thin surface crust. It takes severe cold to freeze the ground in a dig site more than an inch or two. As a result, the excavations have continued without delays from frozen soil.

ABOVE & BELOW: Director of Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg Jack Gary points out features in the soil at the Custis Square site; and Cheyenne Johnson and Tamara Stulen hold maps of the Custis Square dig site sketched from discoveries made during the excavation. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Rain and snow will stop the digging, however. During storms, the archaeologists move indoors to catch up on paperwork and clean artefacts. But, if the rain is heavy, water seeps through the ground, under the tarps, and can create a muddy mess in the dig site.

Of course, summer heat waves pose another weather-related challenge for the archaeologists, but they manage through sultry days with plenty of liquids. When I asked Gary about his favourite season for digging, he paused for a few seconds then said, “Fall is my favourite season.” Williamsburg, with its fall colour, is beautiful.

The first archaeological site I visited on February 11 was Custis Square. The weather was sunny and mild, with temperatures approaching 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was perfect digging weather, and Gary’s team of archaeology field technicians was busy scraping dirt to expose ground features and artifacts. Their excavation is focussed on an early 18th-Century garden site that Virginia plantation owner and statesman that John Custis IV planted.

Custis, who owned an estate in Williamsburg during the early-to-mid-1700s, stated that his garden was second to none in Virginia. He worked with Peter Collinson of London on a trans-Atlantic plant exchange for their gardens. Custis sent eastern Virginia plants to London and received European garden plants from Collinson. The correspondence between Custis and Collinson, titled Brothers of the Spade, was published in the 20th-Century.
The archaeological dig at Custis Square aims to map the garden perimeter, locate the garden-related postholes and discover walkways.

Gary said current gardens in Colonial Williamsburg are interpretations of what gardens are thought to have resembled in colonial times but may be based more on later-era gardens.

He hoped his effort will reveal the design and organisation of an early 18th-Century garden in Williamsburg. And letters between Custis and Collinson hold clues to what plants grew in the garden.

Gary mentioned there was drought in the 1730s and that enslaved men would draw water from wells during the day and water the plants in the Custis garden at night. At the time, gardeners thought plants needed cool water, not sun-heated water. Thus, the enslaved men worked long hours, day and night, to maintain the garden throughout the dry summer months.

Many of the excavated postholes within the Custis Square dig site are filled with water. Gary said pumps are used to remove the water from postholes, but often water returns, seeping back from groundwater. Meanwhile, above the postholes, archaeologists use spray bottles of water to moisten dry soil since moist soil shows ground features much better than dry soil.

Digging will continue at the site for an additional two years, thanks to funding by the Jacqueline B Mars Charitable Trust.

From the Custis Square site, Gary and I walked to the dig site at the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. It’s the location of one of the earliest African American churches in the colonies, organised by free and enslaved worshipers in 1776. Gary’s excavation focusses on locating the foundations of two church buildings from 1818 and 1856.

Gary mentioned his team excavated an 1817 one-cent coin, which confirms they’ve located the first church foundation constructed in 1818. The coin was found beneath a section of brick near the foundation.

The church that was built in 1818 was destroyed by a tornado in 1834 but was later rebuilt in 1856.

The 1856 church was more expansive than the first church, and its foundation is visible in the dig site, outlined by brick and soil features, which is evident in the photo above.

The second church stood until 1955 but was torn down and later covered by a parking lot. Recently, the parking lot was removed, and Gary’s excavation is helping to rediscover information about one of the earliest African American churches in the United States.

Williamsburg’s Magazine, in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, was a short walk from the First Baptist Church site.

Gary escorted me inside the walls of the Magazine, where I could view the digging. Gary mentioned that only a few cannonballs and musket balls had been excavated on the site, surprising because the octagonal building was constructed in 1715 to store gunpowder and arms for military purposes.

Most of the artefacts excavated within the walls of the Magazine are from a civilian occupation and are not military-related.

However, one of the more exciting discoveries was clay roof tiles. Initially, the building was thought to have wooden shingles, like many other colonial dwellings. But the excavation proves that non-flammable clay tiles were used on the roof of the Magazine.

Two other discoveries at the Magazine are of interest. First, postholes excavated near the Magazine had been dug at an angle, indicating there may have been a wooden building surrounding the Magazine, perhaps like a lean-to structure.In addition, the excavated foundation of the original brick wall that surrounded the Magazine was not buried deep into the ground, indicating the wall may not have been as high as the existing wall, which was built in the 1930s. Gary said the first wall may have been only about six feet tall.

Gary hopes the results of his excavation will prove how the Magazine was built and utilised, spanning the years from 1715 to the present day. Our last stop was the archaeology lab in Colonial Williamsburg. Lab work, such as cleaning and documenting artifacts, is time-consuming but essential for archaeology. And when it rains or snows, field archaeologists report to the lab to help with the tedious work.

The lab also stores and displays artifacts dug in the Williamsburg area since the 1930s. The number of artifacts, bottles and pottery in the lab is impressive.

The most remarkable artifact on display is a well-preserved English helmet from the early 1600s that was excavated in the Martin’s Hundred, an early 17th-Century plantation located on the north shore of the James River. A photo of the helmet is displayed below.

Dozens of dug wine bottles, and some marked with the John Custis seal, are also stored in the lab. In addition, the lab has a decanter dug at Wetherburn’s Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.

The most unusual artifact on display is a large sea turtle shell dug in the Martin’s Hundred. Why was a sea turtle in a 17th-Century plantation? According to Gary, “we can assume it was food”.

“Many of the artefacts currently curated in the lab will be displayed in the new Campbell Archaeology Center, a new facility that will house our labs, collections space, and public programming space,” wrote Gary in an email, after my visit. Gary and his team are currently raising funds for the new facility, which he hoped to break ground on construction in the next couple of years.

Gary said they will also have a dedicated gallery to the archaeological materials in the Art Museum. The first exhibit, which they expect to open in 2023, will look at the global footprint of 18th-Century life in Williamsburg, highlighting the origins of many of the artefacts.


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