Home Artifacts Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists search for artifacts dating back to the 17th century

Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists search for artifacts dating back to the 17th century


Their biggest weather-related challenge this winter was clearing the ice from the tarps, which cover the dig site at night and on rainy or snowy days. “The patches of ice on the tarps are heavy,” remarked Cheyenne Johnson, an archeology technician, 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 have not slowed down excavations this winter, as the ground has not frozen beyond a thin surface crust. It takes severe cold to freeze the ground of a dig site by more than an inch or two. As a result, the excavations continued without delay from the frozen ground.

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

Of course, summer heat waves pose another weather-related challenge for archaeologists, but they manage to get through sweltering days with lots of liquids. When I asked Gary what his favorite season was for digging, he paused for a few seconds and then said, “Fall is my favorite season. Williamsburg, with its fall color, is stunning.

The first archaeological site I visited on February 11 was Custis Square. The weather was sunny and mild, with temperatures approaching 60 degrees. The weather was perfect for digging and Gary’s team of archeology field techs were busy scraping up dirt to expose soil features and artifacts. Their excavations focus on an early 18th century garden site that Virginia plantation owner and statesman John Custis IV planted.

Custis, who owned an estate in Williamsburg in the early to mid-1700s, said his garden was unrivaled in Virginia. He worked with Peter Collinson of London on a transatlantic exchange of plants for their gardens. Custis sent plants from East Virginia 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 excavation of Place Custis aims to map the perimeter of the garden, to locate the postholes linked to the garden and to discover the paths. Gary said Colonial Williamsburg’s current gardens are interpretations of what the gardens are thought to have looked like in colonial times, but may be based more on gardens from a later era. He hopes his efforts will reveal the design and organization of an early 18th century garden in Williamsburg. And the letters between Custis and Collinson contain clues to the plants that grew in the garden.

Gary mentioned that there was a drought in the 1730s and enslaved men drew water from wells during the day and watered the plants in the Custis garden at night. Back then, gardeners believed that plants needed cool water, not water heated by the sun. Thus, enslaved men worked long hours, day and night, to maintain the garden during the dry summer months.

Many postholes excavated at the Custis Square excavation site are filled with water. Gary said the pumps are used to evacuate water from the postholes, but often the water comes back, seeping from the groundwater. Meanwhile, above the postholes, archaeologists use water spray bottles to moisten the dry ground, because wet ground shows soil characteristics much better than dry ground.

Excavations will continue at the site for two more years, with funding from the Jacqueline B. Mars Charitable Trust.

From the Custis Square site, Gary and I walked to the Williamsburg First Baptist Church excavation site. It is the location of one of the first African-American churches in the colonies, organized by free and enslaved worshipers in 1776. Gary’s excavations focus on locating the foundations of two churches from 1818 and 1856.

Gary mentioned that his team had excavated an 1817 one-cent coin, which confirms that they located the first church foundation built in 1818. The coin was found under a section of brick near the foundation.

The church which was built in 1818 was destroyed by a tornado in 1834 but was later rebuilt in 1856. The 1856 church was larger than the first church, and its foundation can be seen at the excavation site, delineated by brick and floor features, which is evident in the photo above.

The second church stood until 1955 but was demolished and later covered by a parking lot. Recently, the parking lot was removed, and Gary’s digs are helping to rediscover information about one of the first African-American churches in the United States.

Gary escorted me inside the walls of the Magazine, where I could view the excavations. Gary mentioned that only a few cannonballs and musket balls had been excavated from the site, which is surprising as the octagonal building was built in 1715 to store gunpowder and weapons for military purposes.

Most of the artifacts discovered within the walls of the magazine are from civilian occupation and not military related. However, one of the most exciting discoveries was that of clay roof tiles. Initially, the building was thought to have wood 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 interesting. First, post holes dug near the store had been dug at an angle, indicating that there may be a wooden building surrounding the store, possibly as a lean-to structure.

Additionally, the excavated foundation of the original brick wall that surrounded the store was not buried deep in the ground, indicating that the wall may not have been as high as the existing wall, which was built in the 1930s. Gary said the first wall was perhaps only about six feet high.

Gary hopes the results of his excavations will prove how the magazine was constructed and used, covering the years from 1715 to the present day.

Our final stop was the Colonial Williamsburg Archeology Lab. Laboratory work, such as cleaning and documenting artifacts, is time-consuming but essential for archaeology. And when it rains or snows, field archaeologists show up at the lab to help with the tedious work.

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

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

Dozens of hollowed-out wine bottles, some marked with the John Custis seal, are also stored in the lab. Additionally, the lab has a carved Madeira wine carafe at Wetherburn’s Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. Madeira wine, produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira, was a favorite in the colonies.

The most unusual artifact on display is a large sea turtle shell carved out of Martin’s Hundred. Why was a sea turtle on a 17th century plantation? According to Gary, “we can assume it was food”.

“Many of the artifacts currently housed in the lab will be on display in the new Campbell Archeology Center, a new facility that will house our labs, collections space and public programming space,” Gary wrote in an email, after my visit. Gary and his team are currently fundraising for the new facility, which he hopes to begin building within the next two years.

Gary said they will also have a gallery dedicated to archaeological materials from the art museum. The first exhibit, which they plan to open in 2023, will examine the global footprint of 18th-century life in Williamsburg, highlighting the origins of many artifacts.