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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.