Archaeology News at Charlton’s Coffeehouse


Spring in the Ravine

The Coffeehouse ravine post-excavation showing natural grade with erosion-cut
The Coffeehouse ravine post-excavation showing natural grade with erosion-cut

What was the view from Richard Charlton’s east-facing windows?

This was the question that motivated archaeologists to spend April and May in the ravine just outside the newly reconstructed Coffeehouse. The ravine itself is natural landscape feature...one of many around which town planners had to maneuver as they laid out the streets. But people frequently leave their marks on natural landscapes, changing them by filling, terracing, smoothing, banking, carving, and countless other earth-moving activities. The purpose of the recent excavation was to identify the 18th century topography, and to determine how the depth and course of the ravine had evolved through time. A 4 meter x 5 meter “slice” out of the ravine-side helped to answer those questions.

What Did We Learn?

Artifacts found in the recent archaeological dig
Artifacts found in the recent archaeological dig

During the 18th century the Coffeehouse ravine was wider and flatter than its present course. Attempts to fill and level Duke of Gloucester Street in 1720 and construction of the Coffeehouse in 1750 appear to have altered the natural water flow, sending water cascading from Duke of Gloucester Street, and scouring channels (visible in the photo above) that were revealed by recent excavation.

Downslope from Richard Charlton’s establishment, these channels captured coffeehouse refuse: wine bottles, tumblers, wine glasses, porcelain and white salt-glazed stoneware plates and tea wares, chamber pots, food remains, and nails, as they silted in. At first blush, recovered artifacts seem similar in character to artifacts recovered during earlier Coffeehouse excavations, though months of lab analysis will more accurately determine whether that is so.

Anything Unusual?

Base of a delft punchbowl
Base of a delft punchbowl

Most excavations produce a few artifacts that stick in the memory...artifacts that are uncommon finds in the Historic Area, or things that are (quite simply) attractive. The ravine excavation produced its share of such artifacts. Among the more unusual pieces recovered from the ravine’s 18th century layers were large fragments of at least 3 carrot-shaped Iberian storage jars (below), the pedestal from a leaded glass dessert pyramid, decorated delft fireplace tiles, a large chunk of (what appears to be) amethyst, a hoe blade and shovel, cutlery, the lid and other fragments of a Jackfield teapot, and the base of a large delft punchbowl (above).

Bottom of Iberian storage jar in the field (with pink flagging tape)
Bottom of Iberian storage jar in the field (with pink flagging tape)
Neck of an Iberian storage jar in the lab.
Neck of an Iberian storage jar in the lab

Later Changes

The configuration of the ravine as we know it today is largely a product of erosion and deposition during the 19th and 20th centuries. Nineteenth-century demolition of the coffeehouse and subsequent construction of the Carey Peyton Armistead house (1891), not to mention excavation of a cistern are all likely causes of ground disturbance that appear to have resulted in deposition of 3’ of fill over 18th century ravine layers. The process of shoring up the ravine edge continues to this day.

How Will We Use This Information?

The Coffeehouse ravine project is an example of landscape archaeology: archaeology focused on ways in which people have changed the landscape, and how that landscape shaped how people moved and interacted. The Virtual Williamsburg project (a 3D computer model of the east end of Duke of Gloucester Street) currently under construction will use the topographic information collected during this, and earlier, Coffeehouse excavations, to accurately model the terrain as it appeared in 1776.

Beyond the Virtual Williamsburg application, excavated soil layers and their associated artifacts will refine our understanding of the coffeehouse business conducted by Richard Charlton on the eve of the American Revolution. Artifacts recovered from this recent project will be accessioned (washed, cataloged, numbered), analyzed, researched, and incorporated (through processes such as ceramic cross-mending) into the body of archaeological evidence that has been accumulating since Coffeehouse excavation first began in the 1990s.