Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg

by Meredith M. Poole

Excavation has been talking place at Colonial Williamsburg since 1928. In that year, a group of laborers was set to work exposing the foundations of the Capitol building at the east end of Duke of Gloucester Street. This single excavation, motivated by architectural interest, was the first of now hundreds of projects that would restore this town to its eighteenth-century appearance, and would eventually lead researchers to a clearer understanding of the lives of those who made their homes here.

With more than 75 years of excavation now behind us, and with Colonial Williamsburg, by all outward appearances, a “finished product,” it would seem safe to assume that all of Williamsburg’s archaeology has been completed. In fact, this is nowhere close to true. Only an estimated 10 to 15% of the ground within the Historic Area’s 301 acres has been fully excavated. This statistic speaks not only to the labor-intensive nature of archaeological excavation, but more importantly, to the evolving goals and techniques of excavation as they have been practiced in Williamsburg for the last 75 years.

Looking backward, the history of excavation at Colonial Williamsburg can be separated into three phases. While these divisions are primarily related to changes in leadership, there are distinct goals and methodologies that accompany each (see detailed descriptions below). The first phase is defined as the reconstruction of Williamsburg as a town, a period during which more than 300 buildings were reconstructed based on physical evidence, adding to the 88 structures that survived from the eighteenth century. The hallmark of the second period was the introduction of open-area, stratigraphic excavation, a technique that spelled the difference between the “excavation” of the first phase, and the advent of “true archaeology” in Williamsburg. The third phase is characterized more as an evolution than as a new disciplinary direction. During these years, with the aid of new technology and a comparative approach, the archaeological evidence of the second phase was expanded upon, and new areas of research were opened.

Excavating an entire town is an enormous undertaking, and there will opportunities for visitors to visit archaeological sites in Williamsburg for a long time to come. You might not, however, see archaeological excavations each time you visit. This is because archaeologists, particularly in a protected town such as Williamsburg, are guided by a conservation ethic. Sites are excavated only when motivated by challenging research questions, and only when there is adequate funding not only for the excavation, but for lab work, artifact conservation, and report writing. Conservation also demands that sites, or portions of sites, be “banked,” or saved for a time when new questions or better technology might yield superior results.

In the meantime, the goal of archaeological excavation is to produce a representative sample of eighteenth-century Williamsburg: to excavate properties at the commercial (east) end, as well as some of the more gentrified “urban plantations” on the northwestern side of town; sites once occupied by the affluent, and tenant sites; sites where trades were practiced as well as domestic sites. Overarching this mission is a commitment to filling in gaps, particularly toward understanding the lives of Williamsburg’s large, enslaved African and African American population.
The Earliest Phase: 1928-1958

During the earliest phase of excavation in Williamsburg, the goals and methods were simple, straightforward, and so architecturally-oriented that today we self-consciously avoid calling the work “archaeology” at all. Excavation between 1928 and 1958 focused entirely on the problem of finding the physical remains of Williamsburg. Although eighty-eight buildings survived from the eighteenth century, almost four times that number had fallen into disrepair and been razed over the course of the ensuing centuries.

The job of locating these structures fell to the large number of unemployed laborers that the Depression years had to offer. (Although there was generally no trained archaeological supervision on sites trenched during this early phase of excavation, there was one notable exception. The Palace excavation was overseen by Prentice Duell, an archaeologist trained in Egypt. Under his direction the Palace cellar was divided into 19 separate “excavation areas,” and fill from each was screened for artifacts. Additionally, Mr. Duell called a forensic expert (Dr. Aleš Hrdlička) from the Smithsonian Institution to examine the burials in the west garden. On a few other sites it appears that some of the cross-trenched soil was screened as well.)

These men were set to work “cross-trenching,” a technique that involved lining individuals up along the edges of a property and instructing them to dig trenches one shovel blade wide (about one foot), and one shovel handle apart (about five feet), starting from where they stood and continuing to the opposite side of the property. When brick foundations were encountered, the workmen trenched around them, allowing an architect and a draftsman to draw what remained and to determine whether the structure dated to the eighteenth century.

Cross-trenching proved to be a very successful means of locating building foundations. It was quick and relatively inexpensive, making it the “discovery” method of choice not only in Williamsburg but also on other prominent sites, such as Jamestown Island. By the late 1950s an estimated 75% of the Historic Area had been cross-trenched, and the job of reconstructing the physical town was nearly complete. Yet something was missing.

While trenching turned out to be an excellent means of fast and accurate reconstruction, the technique did little to reveal the lives and activity that made Williamsburg a vibrant eighteenth-century town. One of the primary problems with the technique was that artifacts—the evidence of those lives and activities—were not collected with any sort of regularity. Although excavators saved between one and three 15-by-28-by-15-inch boxes of artifacts per property, most of the items were architectural fragments—locks, hinges, bits of marble mantle—that were considered useful for the purposes of reconstruction. Workers also collected an assortment of unusual objects that caught their attention, but very few of the everyday items—ceramics, bottle glass, tobacco pipe fragments, and animal bone—that define eighteenth-century life for today’s archaeologists. Fortunately, these practices—fairly common at the time—were about to come to an end at Colonial Williamsburg.

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