Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

James Anderson Forge

James Anderson Forge: Excavation Behind the Blacksmith Shop

by Meredith M. Poole

Excavation Image
Ca. 1782 Frenchman’s Map showing the two workshops on the rear of the property.

Excavations on the site of James Anderson’s blacksmith shop were held between June 2000 and February 2001. The excavations were intended to help us understand the activities taking place in and around two small outbuildings on the southern half of the property.

James Anderson (1739/40-1798) was among Virginia’s most influential eighteenth-century craftsmen, serving as the public armourer for Virginia. His shop had seven forges and was the largest and most successful blacksmith business in the city. Contracted to be the public armorer in 1776, he was responsible for keeping arms at the Powder Magazine repaired, and his shop was responsible for iron work needed by the Continental Army during the American Revolution. At one time he employed close to 50 individuals, including journeymen, appentices, slaves, and young boys.

When the Anderson shops were reconstructed in the early 1980s, based on an earlier archaeological study in 1974-75, the back portion of the property was left alone. But it is clear from the documentary record that the entrance to Anderson’s operation was from Francis (or "Back") Street on the south side of the property. The 1782 "Frenchman’s" map shows two outbuildings along the property line, and it is these buildings that will eventually be reconstructed to complete the interpretation of the property.

2000-01 Excavation

The 2000-01 excavation was able to significantly add to the interpretation of the Anderson site. Through this effort, the third southernmost industrial building shown on the Frenchman’s Map (circa 1782) was determined to be the location of a tin shop. Through historical documentation, the importance of this trade to Anderson’s work regarding the War effort has been demonstrated. Until this time, though, the location of this trade had not been sited.

This excavation also contributed to the interpretation of the structure itself, although it was unable to precisely determine the structure’s dimensions. This particular type of industrial building was typically framed with wood and might have incorporated recycled building materials such as windows. Archaeological evidence in the form of drainage features shows that it possessed a raised wooden floor. Lack of archaeological remains confirms that a chimney/forge was not incorporated into the structure at least in the area exposed in the 1970s and during the current excavation. In some areas, the frame of the building might have been laid directly onto the ground as there was no effort to level the slope of the land upon which the building rested causing the brick foundation to taper out in the east. Therefore, a brick foundation was used to support only part of the building as this foundation did not continue for the entire width of the structure. Additionally, the building might have contained a loft where workers were housed. Immediately adjacent to the structure was a fence line and a privy.

The industrial activities on the site are certainly the most well-documented and well-represented activities in which Anderson and his work force engaged. However some information was able to be gained regarding the large number of diverse individuals employed by Anderson. Historical documentation identifies at least four different ethnic groups on the site: Americans, African-Americans, Scottish, and French. Some were slaves, free blacks, prisoners, indentures, prisoners of war, and soldiers. Due to the difficulty in assigning specific artifacts to the 40-50 individuals working for Anderson, it was only possible to suggest the presence of certain ethnic groups in the 2000-01 excavation area. Although all are represented in the archaeological record, it is only in rare cases that artifacts specify to whom they belonged or by whom they were used. Given this limitation, the current excavation was able to tentatively identify the presence of African-Americans due to the recovery of colonoware and the presence of French soldiers due to the recovery of French bottle glass and French gun flints. The other groups are simply represented anonymously. As interesting as it would be to study these individuals and their interrelationships with each other, this task proves problematical without supporting historical documentation.

What can be said about the workers are merely generalizations. Artifact concentrations allude to the presence of a domestic component on the site, as previously mentioned, suggesting that some of Anderson’s workforce were being housed above the tin shop. The presence of refined earthenwares, such as porcelain, suggest that members of Anderson’s workforce were participating in the “Consumer Revolution” and had a concern for the purchase of status symbols. Additionally, the presence of pharmaceutical glass on the site in conjunction with entries into Dr. Galt’s daybook demonstrates an interest in maintaining health.

With regard to our interpretation of the building itself, the absence of any archaeological evidence for forges, anvil stumps or water vats implies that this was not a workspace for forging iron. The relative abundance of non-ferrous metals, however, makes this a likely location for one of the other metalworking trades (tinsmithing, gunsmithing, founding, and others) mentioned in documentation. The recovery of tin fragments and lead waste is particularly compelling, as these are the basic components of the tinsmithing trade. We plan to run tests to determine if some of the unidentifiable metals are bits of solder used in joining tin pieces. The recovery of other lead artifacts in the form of ball shot, lead sprues, and window cames raises the possibility that these pieces were being re-used to make solder. Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, lead objects may have been being cast in this space. Since tinsmithing is primarily a bench trade and lead casting does not require large-scale permanent work-related structures, this offers an explanation as to the absence of any specialized work-related features within the building itself.