Charlton’s Coffeehouse Archaeology

by Mark Kostro, Andrew Edwards, and Meredith Poole
Mark is a project archaeologist, Andy is a staff archaeologist, and Meredith is a staff archaeologist and coordinator of public programs.
(This article originally appeared in the Vol. 29, No. 3, Winter 2008/2009 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter)


A plan for the reconstruction of Charlton's Coffeehouse, a hotbed of political, business, and social activity in the 1760s adjacent to the colonial Capitol, became a reality earlier this year with a generous gift from long-time Colonial Williamsburg benefactors Forrest and Deborah Mars. The new building will sit atop original eighteenth-century foundations and will be the first ground-up reconstruction along Duke of Gloucester Street in several decades. The project also includes reconstruction of a small outbuilding associated with the Coffeehouse, as well as the re-establishment of the eighteenth-century landscape as close as historical, archaeological, and architectural evidence permits. When completed, the Coffeehouse will be the only one of its kind in the United States, and visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy hot tea, coffee, chocolate, and pastries in a realistic mid-eighteenth century setting.

The Coffeehouse reconstruction is a product of over a decade of interdisciplinary research by the Foundation's archaeologists, architectural historians, and historians. Between 1996 and 1998, soon after the removal of the 1890 Cary Peyton Armistead house from the property, archaeologists launched an extensive examination of the site.

The first summer's excavation (1996) focused on architectural questions, particularly on the appearance of the Coffeehouse structure. An examination of the foundation revealed that the north and west walls and a fragment of the south wall were part of the lot's original structure built in 1750 by Robert Crichton as a storehouse and sold to Nathaniel Walthoe soon afterward. It was converted for use as a coffeehouse sometime before the mid-1760s. Projected dimensions from these walls indicate that the Coffeehouse measured 35 ft. x 35 ft. Additional physical details were gleaned from the late nineteenth-century Armistead house. Architectural historians identified more than three dozen framing members salvaged from the Coffeehouse and reused in the later building. Rafters, an original window, and a door helped complete a picture of Richard Charlton's establishment as a 1½ story frame building with high-style finishes and a low-pitched gable roof.

But while some portions of the Coffeehouse's framing and foundations had survived into the late twentieth century, other historically significant features had vanished. The front porch on which Lt. Governor Francis Fauquier describes sitting with members of the Council at the outbreak of a Stamp Act riot was conspicuously absent. Excavation in 1996 recovered not only the brick footings for this porch but also an apron of ash created over the years as soot was repeatedly swept off the porch into the yard. This ash shadow enabled archaeologists to determine the overhang of the floorboards, and from this, to calculate the porch's depth to be about eight feet.

Few outbuildings seem to have populated the Coffeehouse lot. Between 1996 and 1998 archaeologists located just one: an outbuilding located northeast of the building, deep inside the ravine. The paucity of outbuildings may have had something to do with the size of Charlton's lot which ended precisely at the edges of the 35 ft. x 35 ft. building that occupied it. Once beyond the borders of his Coffeehouse, the evidence suggests that Charlton pushed persistently at the edges of his property, moving some of his activities onto adjacent land held by other people and the City of Williamsburg.

Perhaps Charlton's most egregious infraction was a trash dump that began just beyond his back wall and extended more than 40 feet to the north. Excavated by archaeologists in 1997, this trash midden yielded more than 70,000 artifacts, and the answers to a battery of questions regarding the Coffeehouse's operation. Ceramic and glass fragments revealed that differences between taverns and coffeehouses were not clear-cut in eighteenth-century Williamsburg, and that among hot beverages, tea remained the drink of choice at this establishment. Charlton's serving pieces revealed a certain economy in everyday place settings that was offset by expenditures on specialty pieces: archaeologists recovered fragments of elaborate jelly and syllabub glasses and a glass pyramid for fancy desserts.

Though the reconstructed Coffeehouse will offer light refreshments, Charlton's trash pit indicates a more ambitious menu. Nearly 30,000 animal bones from the Coffeehouse period reveal a preference among patrons for roasted lamb and mutton. Also on the menu were calves heads, hams, and a wide variety of wildlife. The presence of butchered peacock bones is further evidence of the high-style elite cuisine consumed at Charlton's establishment.

The discovery in the trash midden of a human finger bone fitted with copper wire and several human vertebrae with dissection marks hints that a human skeleton may have been part of a scientific lecture or display in the Coffeehouse. The trash midden also contained evidence of the strategies that Charlton employed to maximize his resources. A wigmaker by trade, Charlton appears to have offered this service to customers, based on the recovery of nearly fifty wig curlers, bone combs, and a saw used to make those combs. Renting out rooms or space may also have eased Charlton's financial burden. Discovery of a small furnace and seventeen crucibles containing trace amounts of gold, silver, and copper suggests the presence of an assayer (one who verifies the metal content of coins) on the property.

The absence of a detached kitchen remains one of the more distinctive aspects of the Coffeehouse site. The summer of 1998 was spent searching for a kitchen for this large commercial establishment. Though unsuccessful in finding an outbuilding beyond the Coffeehouse walls, archaeologists discovered a large patch of scorched clay and brick rubble in the basement under a modern concrete floor. Large-scale cooking seems to have taken place in a portion of the cellar. Evidence of a partition separating the cellar into multiple rooms suggests that, in the absence of a yard, Charlton created several separate work spaces beneath, rather than behind, his establishment. Although an unusual arrangement, this may have been the solution required by the site's physical limitations.

Summer 2008

With reconstruction now imminent, Foundation archaeologists returned to the site this summer to further flesh out details of the building's appearance as well as to determine the grade and look of the surrounding terrain. Furthermore, the archaeological team needed to determine if unexcavated portions of the Coffeehouse site would be compromised by the reconstruction activities. All portions of the site thus affected needed to be fully excavated prior to start of any earthmoving activities. After a ten-year hiatus, archaeological work recommenced at Charlton's Coffeehouse on June 18. Several areas around the intact eighteenth-century foundation walls were selected for further work, as well as the entire interior of the cellar.

The Exterior

Area 1 - The largest excavation was opened in the very southwest corner of the property. It was hoped that this 4 by 4 meter (13 ft. by 13 ft.) area would give us some insight into the character of a ravine that ran through the site prior to the construction of Crichton's Storehouse in 1750 and how the building was related to that topography. In addition to several layers of fill that included brick rubble, mortar, plaster, oyster shell, and clay, the new excavation revealed a substantial (20 in.-wide) section of brick retaining wall running in a westerly direction from the front corner of the Coffeehouse foundations. A look at the 1930s map of the archaeological work at the Edinburgh Castle Tavern (formerly Burdette's Ordinary) to the west of the Coffeehouse revealed how the retaining wall crossed into the neighboring lot and connected to the southwest corner of the tavern. Within a short time, building debris, clay, soil, and trash were dumped in front of the retaining wall, raising the level on the sidewalk side of the property nearly four feet by the end of the eighteenth century. Analysis of archaeological deposits against the retaining wall indicate the ravine was verdant with vines, trees, and shrubs keeping erosion at bay from the Middle Plantation period until the storehouse was built in 1750. The very bottom layer in the ravine was a six-inch thick dark humic (organic) sandy topsoil that suggests a slow and continuous build-up of soil from leaf mould and rotting plants. Prior to construction of Crichton's Storehouse, a thick layer of yellow clay was dumped in the ravine to make a more level and stable building surface. The storehouse's construction subsequently changed the drainage pattern of the ravine, causing a major erosion gully to appear along the new building's west side that threatened to undermine its foundations. Accordingly, the retaining wall we found was built soon after the storehouse to allow the ground around the building to be built up to street level and to inhibit run-off during major rain storms.

Area 2 - The area just behind the retaining wall was also excavated as part of this summer's fieldwork. While the wall succeeded in keeping soil from eroding between the storehouse/Coffeehouse and Edinburgh Castle Tavern, it didn't keep the neighbors next door from dumping quite a bit of garbage behind the wall. The result was the accumulation of several layers of mid to late eighteenth-century trash so full of oyster shell, broken wine bottles, fragments of plates, and butchered animal bone that there was actually very little soil. Although the condition, number, and variety of the artifacts recovered from the layers that washed up against the building from next door was spectacular and exciting in itself, it of course told us far more about the neighbors than it did about Charlton.

Area 3 - Our excavation unit placed at the northwest corner of the 1750 structure again revealed exceptionally deep strata indicative of the ravine's being filled over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The three-foot-plus deep excavation indicated that the north wall is five courses of brick deeper than the west wall. The west wall is stepped up a few courses as it progresses south towards the street climbing the ravine. Excavations on the interior of the building at the same corner show that prior to 1750 a layer of clay fill had been brought in to level that part of the yard enough to build a stable foundation.

Area 4 - Another excavation unit was placed at the southeast corner of the 1890 Cary Peyton Armistead house foundations. Archaeological excavation was necessary here because a retaining wall contemporary with the Victorian house was to be removed as part of the re-landscaping of the property. Similar to other areas along the exterior of the building, the archaeological excavations encountered several feet of soil accumulation. Most of it was nineteenth- and twentieth- century fill that covered a line of postholes for a fenceline running from west to east found at a depth that was ground surface in the mid-eighteenth century. The fence originated at the corner of the Coffeehouse and extended east into the ravine. Evidence that some posts were replaced several times suggests the fence was a long-standing feature on the landscape limiting access into the property from the street during the eighteenth century. One of the fenceposts was placed within a filled-in drainage ditch running from the southwest to the northeast, toward the deepest part of the ravine where the creek now divides the property from that of the Secretary's Office.

The Interior

Even though the reconstruction of Charlton's Coffeehouse will be a faithful replica of the original, it is subject to current building codes and regulations. In order to accommodate modern duct work, an employee restroom, and mechanical systems necessary for a building open to the public, the plans require the current cellar floor be lowered by more than a foot. This necessitated that the whole interior be examined archaeologically for traces of interior walls, structural supports, drains, and other features before construction begins. At least one feature pre-dating the construction of the storehouse/Coffeehouse was known at that outset of the investigation-a box drain that began at the Edinburgh Castle Tavern next door, ran across the ravine where the Coffeehouse building was to be built and into the creek on the eastern edge of the property. Although a small portion of the building's interior was previously excavated, the majority of the interior was not addressed archaeologically until the beginning of August of this year.

The interior of the Coffeehouse can be divided into four quadrants:

Southwest -The recent floor level of the southwestern section of the cellar was approximately the same as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and consisted of hard-packed sandy/clay subsoil. Near the southwest corner of the building, a circular barrel-lined feature was set into the ground. All that remained of the barrel was a circular stain in the bottom where the rim of the barrel sat. Buried within the feature was a nearly-complete American stoneware jar dating to the early nineteenth century. The jar was broken in place, but we removed it with the contents intact to the artifact conservation office at Bruton Heights Education Center. The purpose of the buried barrel inside the building is not known (pickles anyone?).

Northwest - This portion of the cellar was built within a gully that ran southwest to northeast within the ravine. The innovation required to construct a building in a ravine was dramatically illustrated in this area. First, a thick layer of clay was placed in the ravine to prepare the area for construction and serve as the floor surface in the northwest section. After the clay, the box drain mentioned above was installed to carry water from Edinburgh Castle Tavern through the gully and presumably to the creek that defined the eastern end of the lot. The west foundation wall for the storehouse was built atop the clay layer and seemed to accommodate the drain. Excavations along the interior of the north wall revealed, however, that the north wall was five courses of brick deeper than the west and cut through the clay. In doing so, the north wall truncated the drain, rendering it useless. The drain was useful in one sense however; it helped us determine where the floor level was in the eighteenth century, assuming the top of the drain was not protruding above floor level. Measurements taken from the eighteenth-century floor surface to the first floor sill indicate the height of the room was 6 ft. 7 in.

Northeast - In the twentieth century, a four-inch concrete floor had been poured in the northeast room. All but a one-foot perimeter around the walls was cut out in the 1990s, exposing the clay underneath. The clay showed signs of burning, but the only features observed in the clay were a twentieth-century heating oil pipe and sewer conduit. Assuming that the floor was the same height in the northeastern room (6 ft. 7 in.), measurements suggest that about four inches of clay was removed before the construction of the concrete floor. No excavations were carried out in this room since the eighteenth-century floor had been obliterated.

Southeast - Although twentieth-century coal fragments had been impressed into the surface of the floor, the subsoil base seemed to be the original grade. There were no features to excavate, so the floor was left as it was found.

What did we learn?

  • Construction of the building that became Charlton's Coffeehouse destabilized the ravine causing erosion, leading to the construction of a large retaining wall between it and the Edinburgh Castle Tavern to the west. The placement of the retaining wall in turn resulted in the ground around the Coffeehouse being raised several feet over time.
  • As part of the development of the property, a large quantity of clay was deposited into the ravine to provide a stable and level surface for the construction of the storehouse that was later renovated for use as a coffeehouse. That clay also provided a floor for the northwestern room.
  • The brick box-drain leading from Edinburgh Castle Tavern was installed after the clay was deposited into the ravine; however the north wall of the storehouse subsequently truncated the drain to rendering it useless.
  • The floor height of the interior of the cellar was approximately 6 ft.7 in. and was consistent throughout the cellar, indicating that the cellar was a viable living and work space in the eighteenth century.
  • At the southeast corner of the building a fence extended towards the east into the ravine, thus limiting access into the side yard from the street.

This year's excavations at Charlton's Coffeehouse were exciting and informative to the archaeologists, the architectural historians, and the architectural conservators working on the reconstruction project. Perhaps as important, the excavations were a really big hit with our guests. They were fascinated with the process of how archaeology, historical research, architectural sleuthing, and the building trades come together as a team to recreate Colonial Williamsburg's newest treasure.

Brief Eighteenth-Century History of the Coffeehouse Property

The Coffeehouse property, on the east side of colonial lot #58, was an important and recognizable location to Williamsburg's eighteenth-century inhabitants. It was, in many respects, the best and the worst of locations. Its position just outside the Capitol gates was clearly advantageous, particularly for a business. Successive owners of the property were challenged, however, by severely sloping topography that placed most of the lot at the bottom of a wet ravine. Because of this constraint, the Coffeehouse lot was among the last in town to be developed, despite its proximity to the Capitol.

The first owner of lot #58, Francis Sharpe, purchased the property in 1713. Failing to meet the requirement to build within 24 months, Sharpe forfeited his property to the city's trustees. In 1717 Sharpe repurchased the lot, and, in order to avoid both forfeiture and the ravine, constructed a house along its western edge. Sharpe died in 1739, leaving lot #58 to his sons, William and Francis, Jr. and Jacob. William was allotted the smallest portion, a 35 foot eastern square which in 1750 was sold to Robert Crichton. Although records for the period between 1739 and 1750 are virtually non-existent, it is clear that by 1750 there were two buildings on lot #58: a tavern run by the Burdett family on the western half and a storehouse on the tiny eastern portion.

Both the archaeological and historical records agree that sometime before 1765 the "storehouse" was converted for use as a coffeehouse. It was from the porch of this establishment that, in 1765, Lt. Governor Francis Fauquier escorted George Mercer, chief distributor of the stamps for the colony, to the safety of the Palace during a Stamp Act riot in the street outside the Capitol wall. In 1767, Charlton advertised that the business formerly operated as a coffeehouse was now open as a tavern. Sometime before April 1771, Charlton's tavern closed in this location. Christiana Campbell rented the space briefly in 1771, but by March of 1772, it had been purchased by Charlotte Dickson.