Previous Archaeology

Archaeology is a cumulative process, with successive projects contributing to an overall understanding of a site, and how people lived on it. This summer’s excavation is part of the third archaeological project on the Ravenscroft property. Each of these projects has had distinct goals, and excavation methods tailored to most efficiently achieve those goals.

In 1954 excavators dug trenches across the Ravenscroft site, searching for brick buildings to reconstruct. Although two foundations and a well were discovered on the Ravenscroft property, nothing was reconstructed.

Map of the Ravenscroft site showing brick foundations uncovered in 1954. (Click on image to enlarge)

Draftsmen record foundations of the smaller Ravenscroft cellar in 1954. (Click on image to enlarge)

A second project, in 1998, focused on a small portion of the Ravenscroft property (lying between the two known cellars) that was slated for development as a tenant house exhibit. Despite the small size of the excavation area, archaeologists recovered nearly 9000 artifacts from a trash pit (or midden), indicating that this site was heavily used, perhaps as early as the seventeenth century. In addition to artifacts, the 1998 excavation turned up postholes from an early eighteenth century fence line, and the remnants of a seventeenth-century boundary ditch.

Though the tenant house exhibit was ultimately installed, and occupied this site for 5 years, the 1998 excavation alerted archaeologists to the tremendous archaeological potential of the Ravenscroft site.

Map of the Ravenscroft site showing cellars uncovered in 1954 and the area explored in 1998. (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeologists excavate portions of the trash midden in 1998. (Click on image to enlarge)

2006-2008

In 2003, five years after it was placed on the Ravenscroft site, the tenant house was removed, and in 2006 archaeologists seized the opportunity to explore some of the questions raised by prior excavations. Over the course of three seasons, the project focused on just a small portion of the site: a 14-by-16-foot cellar first found in 1954 and partially reopened in 1998. Archaeologists opened a 9-by-15-meter “excavation area” around this cellar in an effort to answer the following questions:

  • When was the cellar built?
  • What did the building look like?
  • How was it used? As a house or for some other purpose?
  • Who lived or worked in these spaces?

Current excavation area in relation to earlier project areas.(Click on image to enlarge)

Excavation Progress

2006: Archaeologists and field school students spent the summer of 2006 stripping “plowzone” (a thick layer of soil churned by years of plowing) from the excavation area, and re-exposing the east cellar wall, which had been shored up with sand following its discovery in 1998. By the end of the 2006 field season, a small section of the cellar’s east wall was visible, and while plowzone still covered portions of the site, dark cellar fill was emerging in other areas.

Students excavate plowzone from the site in 2006. (Click on image to enlarge)

End of the 2006 field season. The cellar wall begins to emerge. (Click on image to enlarge)

2007: The project resumed in May 2007 with archaeologists eager to explore the cellar and its contents. Though previous excavators had removed the cellar fill in 1954, recovery of artifacts had not been a priority for them. The Ravenscroft cellar contained a rich variety of household materials, from plates and wine bottles, to the bones from past meals, tobacco pipes, window glass, toy marbles, and gun flints. By summer’s end, archaeologists working inside the cellar had reached a thin layer of coal, marking the bottom of the fill examined by our predecessors.

Outside the cellar, archaeologists explored and recorded the exterior hearth, the bulkhead (or outside cellar) steps, and searched for additional evidence that this cellar was once part of a larger structure.

Students record the bulkhead steps in 2007. (Click on image to enlarge)

Wine bottle seal recovered from the Ravenscroft cellar. (Click on image to enlarge)

2008: In 2008 archaeologists focused on the only “undisturbed” layers within Structure A’s cellar: a thin coal layer (visible in the image above), perhaps created when the partially-destroyed building was being used for coal storage, and a layer of redeposited clay representing the cellar floor.

Two features within the cellar feature were also investigated: a square-shaped pit which may have served as a sump for collecting water, and a refuse-filled depression created during the cellar’s use. A large number of window leads (for holding diamond-shaped panes of glass) were recovered from the sump, suggesting that this building had casement windows.

Two coal-filled features: a possible sump (bottom left) and a refuse pit (right) inside the excavated Ravenscroft cellar.(Click on image to enlarge)

Outside the cellar, students expanded the excavation area to the north, and helped to excavate a long-standing fenceline along the property’s west boundary.

The Ravenscroft Structure A showing a longstanding fenceline (in pumpkin) along the building’s south and west boundaries.(Click on image to enlarge)

What Have We Learned?

The Ravenscroft project was designed to answer specific questions about this small building, its appearance, function, and inhabitants. Following three seasons of work, here is what archaeologists have learned:

When was this cellar built?

In 1998, when archaeologists dug a portion of the Ravenscroft site threatened by construction of the tenant house exhibit, they encountered a large trash pit, or midden, extending along the east wall of the 14-by-16-foot cellar. The midden contained more than 9,000 artifacts, a significant number of which dated to the seventeenth century. The trash pit contents led archaeologists to consider the possibility that this cellar dated to the 1600s, rather than the 1700s.

Within the first months of the 2006 field season, archaeologists knew that this cellar could not have been constructed in the seventeenth century. By the beginning of the 2008 field season we knew that the cellar was built sometime after 1720, based on the presence of a ceramic called “Rogers ware” in the “builder’s trench” (the trench in which the cellar was constructed). That date has, over the course of the final year of digging, been refined to “sometime after 1730” based on a combination of builder’s trench artifacts, and dates attributed to the soil layers through which the cellar was cut.

Archaeologists remove the Ravenscroft cellar fill in quadrants.(Click on image to enlarge)

When was the building destroyed?

It has been somewhat difficult to determine when Structure A fell out of use due to the tremendous amount of archaeological disturbance to the cellar fill. Artifacts retrieved from one undisturbed (clay) layer suggest a destruction date between the late 1760s (which would conflict with the appearance of this structure on the 1782 Frenchman’s Map) and the early 1780s. Further, it appears that after the superstructure of the building had been dismantled, the open cellar may have been used for coal storage, resulting in a layer of coal and brick bats.

What did the building look like when it was standing?

We suspect that the building that stood on this cellar was a frame (wooden) building standing 1 to 1½ stories high. The most recent field season (2008) identified enough window leads (35 in a small cellar floor feature) to suggest that Structure A had casement windows.

The shallow cellar is “English basement,” half of which would have been below ground, the other half above. In all, the cellar would have been about 6 feet deep, requiring a set of steps to access the front door from the outside.

What appears to be a small corner “fireplace” in the image above is really an arch that supported a fireplace on the first floor. Archaeologists are still puzzled by the outward-facing hearth. Its presence suggests that there was an uncellared addition to this building that extended north. None of the excavations between 2006 and 2008 were successful in finding postholes, a builder’s trench, or any other indication of that addition. It is possible that years of plowing have destroyed what evidence existed, however it now seems likely that Structure A was no larger than the 14“ x 16” cellar that we have exposed, excavated, and now reburied. The Revolutionary War period Frenchman’s Map (seen below) certainly shows it as such.

How was the building used?

The Isham Goddin Store in Williamsburg is similar in size and layout to the Ravenscroft cellar. (Click on image to enlarge)

The cellar’s wide bulkhead entrance centered on the front of the building suggests that it may have been a store, looking something like the Isham Goddin Shop at the east end of town.

One possible function for Structure A that archaeologists explored during the 2008 excavation season relates to an 1827 reference to “the old bakehouse lot” in the vicinity of the Ravenscroft property. Commercial bread production might explain the need for a cellar with wide steps to accommodate crates and barrels. Bread baking might also shed light on the very large hearth constructed on what seems to be the outside of the building. Archaeobotanical samples taken from various places within the cellar may ultimately confirm the presence of large quantities of wheat stored in the building, but as yet, the “bakehouse theory” remains a theory. Certainly the recently-suggested 1780 destruction date would have made Structure A a very distant memory for anyone making reference to it by 1827.

Who lived and/or worked there?

Based on the dates now attributed to Structure A, we now know that it was likely built during the tenure of Robert Wills or possibly John Holt, and that it continued in use through the occupancy of Holt, printers William Hunter and Joseph Royle, and Royle’s survivors (wife, Rosanna Hunter Royle and son, William who sold the lots in 1785).

Regardless of how this string of occupants used the building, Structure A was likely very familiar to the enslaved members of successive households living on these lots. A store, a kitchen, or a bakehouse all would have required slave labor. Additionally, slaves were often housed in or above ancillary buildings, as this one appears to be.

Continuing documentary research has resulted in a growing list of enslaved people whose names were associated with owners and tenants of this property. The Ravenscroft project offers an opportunity to examine tangible evidence of those whose lives have been poorly represented in Williamsburg’s written history.

Enslaved people living on the Ravenscroft property during the mid-eighteenth century. This is not a comprehensive list; work continues in the documentary record. (Note: the “Jenny” discussed in the last column is a slave mentioned in a 1775 Virginia Gazette runaway notice.)

What’s Next?

At the end of the 2008 season, with Structure A fully excavated, archaeologists backfilled the cellar to protect it from damage. Before backfilling, the foundations were carefully mapped, scanned, and recorded using a GPS. Research on the building and its function will continue in the lab as artifacts are accessioned and analyzed, and as test results for chemical and archaeobotanical samples are received.

To date there are no plans to rebuild Structure A. Certainly archaeologists will want to know more about its relationship to other buildings on the property, and to clarify its use. A major obstacle to learning more about Structure A has been its “disturbed” nature. In 1954 excavators removed the cellar’s entire fill...all of the layers of soil and artifacts that might have yielded dates and provided clues to this building’s function. With so little intact evidence from Structure A to examine, archaeologists will turn their attention in 2009 to a portion of the site that escaped cross-trenching, and may therefore present more reliable information. It may be possible to learn more about one structure by better understanding another.