Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

A Short History of Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg

by Meredith M. Poole

Excavation, in one form of another, 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.


A city block in Williamsburg being cross-trenched.

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.


Excavation around foundations.

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.


Excavation of the Governor’s Palace 1930-31.

Summary of Defining Characteristics of the Earliest Phase

• Wholesale excavation (“unstructured” excavation of buildings like the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace whose locations were well-known).
• Cross-trenching: Excavation at a 90 degree angle (1928-1938) or a 45 degree (1938-1958) to the street in order to recover building remains.
• Excavation as an architectural tool.
• Historical archaeology had not yet emerged as a discipline.

Examples of Sites Excavated

All major public buildings, including the Governor’s Palace, the Capitol, the Raleigh Tavern; domestic sites such as the Wythe, Peyton Randolph, and Brush-Everard sites; trade sites such as the James Geddy Foundry.


Extent of trenching during the earliest phase of excavation.

Establishing Archaeology: 1958-1982

In the late 1950s a British archaeologist named Ivor Noël Hume was hired as the foundation’s first full-time trained archaeologist. Under his leadership, excavation was separated from the Office of Architecture and evolved into a discipline very similar to the archaeology practiced today.

Noël Hume instituted two crucial changes to the excavation program. The first was the introduction of open-area, stratigraphic excavation. Whereas early excavation had relied on narrow trenches to locate brick foundations, Noël Hume was interested in all of the many activities that had occurred on a site, and their relationship to one another. In order to reveal these, he opened up excavation areas that encompassed entire back yards. Sites were gridded into ten-foot squares with balks between the units to allow for the passage of wheelbarrows. The tools changed too. Shovels were traded in for trowels with which soil layers were carefully removed.

An observant reader will have undoubtedly noticed that there is a discrepancy between the statements “approximately 75% of properties in the Historic Area have been cross trenched” and “only 10-15% of the Historic Area has been fully excavated.” This is due to the inherent differences between trenching and open-area excavation, as introduced by Ivor Noël Hume. Open-area excavation is commonly applied to properties that were cross-trenched at an earlier date (when finding foundations was excavation’s only purpose). Although all of the brick-foundation buildings may have been found, later open-area excavation permits the identification of activity areas, walkways, fence lines, post-supported structures, and other components of an historic property. The photo below illustrates a property that was once cross-trenched, and is now being excavated more fully.


Excavation of Wetherburn’s Tavern 1965-66.

As excavators worked their way down through the site’s history they began to uncover many of the things that had been missed by earlier trenching: trash pits, post hole stains identifying the locations of fence lines or lightly constructed buildings, gardens, and backyard work areas.

Noël Hume’s second major innovation was the systematic retrieval of artifacts, not just those that were pretty or unusual, or might enhance an architectural reconstruction. Once those artifacts had been collected and their locations carefully noted, he used them to help assign dates to soil layers, and to reveal some of the activities of site inhabitants.


The Noël Humes in the Archaeology Lab.

While Noël Hume excavated a significant number of sites during his tenure at Colonial Williamsburg, it was one of his earliest projects, the excavation of Wetherburn’s Tavern, which showcased the advantages of careful, stratigraphic excavation. Asked to define sequences of the tavern construction, Noël Hume produced detailed plans of the site’s evolution, including outbuildings, wells, and evidence of a fire.

Recovered artifacts expanded the story considerably. One well yielded blanket fragments that were later reproduced for the tavern beds. Branches and cuttings recovered from the same well helped to inform the landscape reconstruction, while pits and seeds defined the contents of Henry Wetherburn’s garden. Further discovery of nearly 50 intact wine bottles, filled with morello cherries and an unidentified liquid, added a touch of mystery to the Wetherburn’s story.


Excavation at Wetherburn’s Tavern 1965-66.

Ivor Noël Hume was (and in his retirement continues to be) a prolific writer, appealing to both popular and professional audiences. Though written more than 30 years ago, his A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America is an essential volume for all historical archaeologists. Another book, Martin’s Hundred, which describes the discovery of a seventeenth-century settlement nine miles outside of Williamsburg, is responsible for popularizing what was once seen as a dry and dusty profession.

Summary of Defining Characteristics of the Second Period

• Stratigraphic excavation.
• Systematic retrieval of artifacts.
• Use of archaeology to provide site-specific detail about historic events and site occupants.
• Rise of “popular archaeology” through pamphlets and other very readable volumes.

Examples of Sites Excavated

A number of Williamsburg’s craft shops were excavated during this period: the Geddy foundry, the Anthony Hay cabinetmaker shop, the Anderson forge. Other highlights include Wolstenholme Town (at Carter’s Grove), Wetherburn’s Tavern, and the Public Hospital.


Area behind the Peyton Randolph House showing open-area excavation along with former cross-trenching.

Refining the Program: 1982-present

In 1982 Marley R. Brown, III replaced Mr. Noël Hume as Director of Archaeological Research. In some respects this transition caused few changes to field practices: sites are still excavated stratigraphically, though the balks have been eliminated and the ten-foot squares have been replaced by one-meter units. Artifacts are still saved as, now, are environmental data such as seeds, phytoliths (fossilized casts of plant cells), shells, and all animal bone, all which can inform on human behavior.


Analysis of seeds under a microscope.

Advances in technology have opened new avenues of research that continue to transform the archaeological research conducted at Colonial Williamsburg. Soils are tested for their chemical composition; distribution patterns of artifacts have been recorded and scrutinized; and we have benefited from site previewing techniques such as ground-penetrating radar and soil resistivity testing.


Brick kiln discovered in Bruton Heights project.

New topics have dominated Williamsburg’s archaeological discussion over the last twenty years: African-American archaeology, landscape archaeology, and the exploration of “foodways” (all of the activities surrounding the procurement, preparation, and consumption of food). A desire to understand the growth and development of Williamsburg as Virginia’s colonial capital has led to a focus on Middle Plantation, the seventeenth-century town from which Williamsburg sprang, and Jamestown, which preceded it as the capital of colonial Virginia. How this development was mirrored in other places has prompted studies in comparative colonialism both in Bermuda and Barbados.

Still, the most fundamental shift since 1982 is defined by a more anthropological, or comparative, approach. How did the clientele of Shields Tavern compare to that of Wetherburn’s or Charlton’s? Where did a gunsmith fit in the social pecking order of early eighteenth-century Williamsburg? How did the diet of an elite, seventeenth-century urbanite differ from that of an eighteenth-century rural plantation owner, or that of his slaves? The ability to make these comparisons, and to answer these questions is based on the accumulation of nearly 50 years of solid archaeological research.

Summary of Defining Characteristics of the Third Period

• Open area, stratigraphic excavation.
• Careful collection of artifacts and environmental data.
• “Anthropological” approach, often using quantitative analysis.
• Attention to detailed recording and stratigraphic analysis.
• Multi-disciplinary approach using tools from the physical sciences (resistivity testing, neutron activation).
• Focus on interpretation and education.

Examples of Excavated Sites

Peyton Randolph, Shields Tavern, Brush-Everard, St. George Tucker Garden, the Coffeehouse and Rich Neck Plantation.