Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Rich Neck Plantation

Rich Neck Plantation: Excavation of a Major Seventeenth-Century Plantation

by David F. Muraca

Introduction to the Site

In summer 2000, for the seventh year, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists examined a fascinating seventeenth-century plantation complex about a mile west of the Historic Area. Rich Neck Plantation, home of Philip and Thomas Ludwell in the 1660s and 1670s, was among the great plantations that have become a hallmark of early Tidewater Virginia and Maryland. One of the founding plantations of the area known as Middle Plantation (the community that preceded Williamsburg), Rich Neck’s architectural sophistication and elaborate layout set it apart from nearly all of its colonial neighbors.

Research Goals

Rich Neck is an extremely important early chapter in the history of Williamsburg. Started in 1636 by Richard Kemp, the Secretary of the Colony, the plantation had grown in size to over 4,000 acres by the middle of the seventeenth century. Richard Kemp and his wife Elizabeth built a 35 x 20 foot dwelling and a separate 19 x 24 foot kitchen/quarter sometime around 1640. The dwelling was a lobby entrance hall and parlor house. A central fireplace divided the two downstairs rooms. Made entirely of brick, this house would have certainly stood out in 1640s Virginia. The kitchen/quarter, also made entirely of brick, contained a large hearth, a bake oven, and a large root cellar located in front of the hearth. This building appears to have had an earthen floor. Located between the house and kitchen was a formal space.

Richard Kemp died in 1650. His will ordered Elizabeth to sell the plantation and return to England. She did neither, instead marrying Sir Thomas Lundsford, an infamous refugee from the English Civil War. Their impact on Rich Neck was minimal, mainly because they seem to have spent most of their time in old Rappahanock County.

After Thomas Lundsford’s death, Elizabeth remarried. Around 1665, the property passed to Thomas Ludwell, the new Secretary of the Colony, who completely renovated the existing brick buildings and added three new buildings. Ludwell ripped out the central chimney, replacing it with matching end chimneys. He replaced the earthen floor with a wooden one, and added two rooms to the north side of the structure. The dwelling now measured 35 by 30 feet. Ludwell replaced the roof with one made of earthenware pan tiles.

At the same time he nearly tripled the kitchen/quarter in size, to 46 by 24 feet, adding matching wings to the east and west sides. These 14 x 24 foot wings each contained full cellars that employed a combination of bricks, glazed tiles, and clay in the fabrication of their floors. Each cellar was subdivided into three rooms—a large room used for storage, a smaller dairy, and a landing for stairs connected to the first floor. The cellars employed their own waterproofing/drainage system, with the eastern cellar containing two small brick-lined, tile-floored coolers.

In addition to the two brick structures, archaeologists have identified four additional post-in-the-ground structures. Located southeast of the kitchen/quarter, these post structures measured 16 x 16 feet, 16 x 20 feet, 16 x 16 feet, and 20 x 48 feet. All of these post structure appear to have housed slaves.

The area between the kitchen/quarter and the dwelling was the precursor of a formal garden. Using fencelines to demarcate its boundaries, this area was characterized by a lack of both artifacts and features. The area did contain several bush holes, irregularly shaped planting holes, and furrows.

Non-architectural finds include the trash deposit for both the house and kitchen, a large number of fencelines, an underground brick kiln, borrow pits (used to extract clay for brick making), and a boundary ditch.

The end of the seventeenth century witnessed the abandonment of this complex due to several factors. Thomas Ludwell and his brother Philip were the staunchest supporters of Governor Berkeley when Bacon’s rebellion broke out in 1676. During the course of the rebellion, the estates of both Thomas and Philip were plundered. However, archaeological and documentary evidence suggests that Rich Neck was not severely damaged. Two years later Thomas died, leaving the plantation to Philip. Governor Berkeley also died that year, and Philip quickly married Berkeley’s widow, acquiring Greensprings Plantation in the process. With Thomas dead and Philip living elsewhere, the fancy brick structures that made up Rich Neck were of little use. The dwelling and other buildings probably stood as ruins before they were torn down so that their building materials could be used elsewhere.

1998 Results

The 1997 field season was spent finishing the excavation of two brick cellars associated with a large brick kitchen/quarter and a series of root cellars located in front of the hearth, along with gathering environmental evidence. The 1998 dig explored how space was organized around the six structures identified to date, concentrating on uncovering fence lines and other landscape features. Archaeologists concluded most of the work in the area behind the site’s large brick kitchen building.The partial opening of this area revealed a work area, a servant burial, and two utilitarian post-buildings. The 1998 dig continued the 1997 successes and uncovered the seven post holes of a shed structure that appears to date to the 1640s—the site’s earliest phase of habitation. The low artifact count around this building, and the odd number of uneven-depth posts, combined to identify this structure as an uninhabited storage building. This shed was no longer standing by the 1660s when seventeenth-century residents placed a slot fence line through the area the shed once covered.

Excavators removed almost all of this fence’s narrow trench-like remains. The trench’s artifact assemblage and its placement in relation to Rich Neck’s brick foundations confirm its circa 1660s date. Excavators also found a large boundary ditch marking the westernmost edge of the site’s central complex. This ditch was about 4 to 5 feet deep in its day and would have extended around the entire habitation.