Did you know...
. . . that the “easy” part of reconstructing Colonial Williamsburg’s appearance as the 18th century capital city of Virginia was using the written records and well-known images such as the Bodleian Plate and the Frenchman’s Map which were noted in the previous article? Yes, the difficult part of the many decades of work to date always has been and remains today the process of determining exactly where a building stood and how it was built. In the 21st century, that still requires what archaeologists have been doing for nearly 90 years at CW – digging.
The largest project in recent years continues on the site of the James Anderson Blacksmith Shop and Public Armoury. As a result of more research and then extensive digging, the Tin Shop, the Main Armoury Building and the Kitchen have been reconstructed during the last few years where the originals once stood. Additional structures, also on their original foundations, include two storage buildings, a workshop and a privy.
During 2013, CW’s professionals began looking on Market Square at the center of the Historic Area for evidence of a Market House which is seen on the Frenchman’s Map. Find the octagonal Powder Magazine in the center of the Map and look just to the right. There are three buildings shown near the Magazine, but only one of them has been reconstructed – the Guardhouse directly to the right. Evidence of the Market House (presumed to be the largest of the three and the one which is not filled in with reddish ink) was thought to have been substantially obliterated by construction of a Greek-revival style church on the site in 1856, with any remaining evidence destroyed when the church was torn down after CW’s restoration began. Two prior efforts in 1948 and 1989 to find traces of the Market House’s foundations were unsuccessful, although an earlier excavation in 1934 did turn up traces of a brick foundation.
In the photos at right, you will see evidence of the diagonal trenches which were dug in 1948 in the first unsuccessful search for signs of the foundation. Note also the remains of the sewer pipes which served a 1920 addition to the church. The trenching technique was used widely in the early decades of CW’s restoration. It can be an effective way to find foundations, cellar walls and similar underground structures in undisturbed soil. But trenching is destructive to other evidence important to archaeologists. The dirt from the trenches generally was dumped back in, but the process disturbed the location of artifacts which were not recorded during the trenching process.
As you can see to the right, today’s technique is to open defined areas for careful excavation rather than to dig long trenches. For the Market House project, the center of the photo shows a 2-meter-square unit that had just been started, compared to the much deeper squares which had already been dug. After marking the units, CW’s pros carefully remove the grass and topsoil. Artifacts in these first several inches are noted, but these only rarely are 18th century items and probably were disturbed from lower layers by the church’s construction or destruction or maybe by the trenching. The work continues by scraping away an inch or so of soil at a time with small masonry trowels as they carefully record each layer, or “chapter” in the site’s history, gradually working their way down to the 18th century.
On this project, in places where the 19th century church had not destroyed it, archaeologists generally found the top of the 18th century layer about one foot below the surface. Locations of the trenches are easily identified because the trenches were filled in with excavated dirt that appears mottled compared to the densely-packed undisturbed Virginia clay through which the trenches were dug.
When the digging season ended in December 2013, no intact foundations had been found. But excavation did reveal two parallel ditches, dug to fortify the Powder Magazine in 1775. The placement of these ditches has helped to define the area where the Market House stood. The Market House itself, a 20’ by 40’ open-sided structure (see the sketch to the right), is now being reconstructed. During the warm months of 2015, you can monitor work on the site with one of the CW webcams. Once completed, the Market House will be used to offer outdoor sales to guests and further enhance the 18th century appearance of Market Square as a whole.
In the summer of 2014, the Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades bricklayers began making the bricks which are becoming the pavers of the open structure. Those bricks were “fired” in the fall of 2014 and have now been laid for reconstruction of a brick area to the north of the Market House to link it to the street. Evidence of the latter (probably to keep both customers and sellers out of the mud) was found just as work was ending in 2013.
There are a number of such projects on the “to do” list for CW’s professional archaeologists. It is very likely that we will be able to watch them working on another site during our 175th Anniversary Celebration week in 2016.
Look at the Frenchman’s Map again for an item of interest for our 175th Anniversary Celebration. The Williamsburg Lodge and Conference Center complex is built on the Nicholas-Tyler land which you can see outlined on that Map. Look below the octagonal Powder Magazine and to the left. The large house was not reconstructed, but the two out-buildings above it – the Laundry on the left (see the bottom photo on the right) and the Office on the right – were reconstructed. Each is now among the 26 Colonial Houses & Taverns which provide modern hotel rooms/suites decorated with period reproductions. Both the Laundry and the Office are set aside for us in 2016.
If you missed earlier "Did you know . . . ?” items, please click here.