Chapters in the Soil

Staff Archaeologist Meredith Poole explains how each layer of soil yields subtle clues. April 16, 2007


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Meredith Poole, and at Colonial Williamsburg, she is a staff archaeologist. Working on what, at the moment?

Meredith Poole: Our current project is the Ravenscroft site, which is located at the corner of Botetourt Street and Nicholson Street, and for people who have something of a Colonial Williamsburg history themselves, it is where the Tenant house stood until very recently.

Lloyd: I know the Tenant house, for some reason. Why do I know it?

Meredith: The Tenant house, I think, is the most moved-around building in the Historic Area, and has recently been moved to Great Hopes Plantation, but originated at Carter’s Grove and sat on the Ravenscroft site for a few years before it was moved again.

Lloyd: If it’s in my mind correctly, can people watch the work?

Meredith: They can. We are working on that site – not year-round, for which I am very grateful – primarily between May and September of each year, primarily because we’re taking advantage of the use of field school students who we get from the College of William and Mary, and who are part of a ten-week program: two five-week sessions. We teach them how to dig on the Ravenscroft site and we use their strong and very young backs.

Lloyd: I had not thought about that before, but you don’t dig archeologically, the same way you would dig up a garden. You’re doing a completely different thing.

Meredith: Exactly. What we are trying to do, for all intents and purposes, is to take the site apart one chapter, or one layer, at a time. Each of the soil layers that’s accumulated over the site is slightly different in color or composition, and so what we’re doing is, we’re noting those soil color changes and trying to attach a date to each one of those, so that we can meld that information with what we know about the history of the site, and determine who has deposited each of those layers. So what we’re doing is, we’re working backwards from the last chapter of the story back to the first chapter.

Lloyd: What’s the first chapter, what’s the earliest thing that you have?

Meredith: The earliest, one of the reasons that we were very interested in going to the Ravenscroft site is that there seemed to be some 17th-century material showing up there. We know that the site was owned in the 17th century by John Page, who owned much of what we now consider Williamsburg. There are some materials that seem to date to the very last quarter of the 17th century and the early 18th century that were recovered on the site. The first documented owner of that particular lot is a man by the name of Christopher Jackson, who was a surveyor, and he was followed very quickly by Thomas Ravenscroft, for whom the site is named. We call it the Ravenscroft site, I think, because we assume that it was Thomas Ravenscroft who built the two brick structures that we now know to stand on that property.

Lloyd: This may sound like a foolish question, but I’m really curious: when you are digging, and you’re in the 18th century, and you know you’re in the 18th century, have you ever found something that pre-dated the 18th century, that just maybe shouldn’t have been there, but was anyway?

Meredith: It happens all the time, things do get stirred up, so it’s not a silly question at all. Things do get stirred up, and plowed up, and generally you can find things that pre-date what you’re looking at, mainly because people hang on to things for a good long time. What gets difficult is when you’re finding things that post-date where you think you are in time. What that means is that you’ve missed some sort of an indication, some sort of a soil change that told you that something disturbed that layer, and you missed it. So you do need to be careful of the sorts of date changes that would indicate that you’ve gone beyond the bounds of what you’re looking for.

Lloyd: If you can, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve found, that fits?

Meredith: With this site? We have been working slowly at the remaining pieces of a trash midden that built up along the foundation of one of the buildings that we know to exist out there. If I may back up one step, part of what we know about this site came from a 1954 excavation, which was done in a very different way than we dig today, and was done primarily to uncover brick foundations, and there were two that were discovered on the lots that we are looking at. Neither building seemed to shake out in the right ways for the excavators doing the work, and so they covered those things back up again.

Then, in 1998, before the Tenant house was put there – because we were aware that there were some early structural remains on the site – we went back and dug right where the Tenant house was going to be. We completely excavated the footprint of the Tenant house that was going to be seated there so that nothing was destroyed in the process. At the time, we uncovered part of a trash midden, or trash pit, or deposit that produced over 9,000 artifacts in a seven meter by ten meter square. So it was a very rich and full and productive type of feature. Part of that was left untouched in 1998, and so when we went back in 2006, we got to excavate the rest of that feature. The artifacts that are coming out of that trash midden show that the Ravenscroft site was both a very rich, and a very varied site. It had many more expensive types of things than we usually find, but also in quantity, had a lot more material that we are accustomed to seeing. We know something about some of the people who lived there, and they include a number of printers for the Virginia Gazette who were in the government employ at the time, and it seems to have been something that paid off rather handsomely for them.

Lloyd:  I know nothing about archaeology, except that archaeologists seem fascinated by trash of the period. So I kind of wonder, since no one keeps trash anymore, what will archaeologists looking at us find?

Meredith: Well we produce plenty of trash, that’s not the problem. I think that what we will have to do is to change our level of interpretation. Right now, what we do is, we look at households, and we look at the trash that people threw out their back doors. We accumulate all of that, and go through it, and learn what we can about how an individual household functioned. I think in the future, what we will have to do is look at communities. We will have to look at things like landfills, and use a different level of analysis than we might use today.

Lloyd: I was just thinking that in Virginia, Virginia now accepts – last year – accepted garbage barges from three Northeast states, so some poor archaeologist trying to figure out what happened here is going to be lost.
Meredith: That will become very complicated.

Lloyd:  Do people ever talk to the archaeologists when they’re digging?

Meredith: Oh, I hope so. We encourage that. Archaeology is one of those things that seems to have some sort of a fascination for most people. One of our goals at the Ravenscroft site is to make it as fully accessible to the public as we possibly can. We’ve done that both by providing background materials on the Web, we have put signs all over the site that explain aspects of what we’re doing, last year we maintained a blog, so that we had a Web log that was kept. Three or four times every month it was updated. We also had a lot of hands-on activities for children on the site. So we do encourage that kind of involvement. We also, for the first time last year, made public interpretation a requirement for the field school students, so much of their grade depended on their mastery of the basic site information, their willingness to talk to people. I think by last year, visitors actually felt almost accosted by students wanting to give them information.

Lloyd: (Chuckles.) Tell me some things – like you said, “printers” – how do you know it was printers? You clearly don’t know them.

Meredith: We don’t know them. We have got historical records, things like deeds, that tell us who was living on specific sites at specific times. The two lots that we are interested in are two colonial lots that were numbered 267 and 268. So, the sorts of things that we might have are deeds, or, some of these people were actually tenants on the site, they didn’t own the land. But we do have documents that attach a person and an occupation to a particular piece of land. So, there’s a blending of historical information and archeological [information].

Lloyd: What are some artifacts that you would expect to find from a normal, if such a thing exists, 17th-century household? I’m sure they’d all be different, but, kind of, what are you looking for?

Meredith: If you think about our own houses, and what we typically throw out, the room in each of our houses that produces the most garbage is the kitchen. So, much of what we recover are things that have to do with people’s daily production of food and consumption of food. So we’ll find a lot of bits of ceramic plates, and we find a lot of animal bone. More than half of what we typically find in the ground is wine bottle glass, which is a fact that you can take and do whatever you care to do with. I think it probably reflects more the fact that wine bottles were inexpensive and easily broken than it does the actual consumption of wine.

Lloyd:  Water wasn’t all that good in those days.

Meredith: You’re absolutely right, I think it was a good choice.

Lloyd: Had I lived in that period, I think I would have much preferred wine to water.

Meredith: I absolutely agree with you.

Lloyd: Milk wasn’t all that healthy either, come to think of it.

Meredith: And some of us are not milk drinkers, even today when it is.

Lloyd: Has anything on this site surprised you?

Meredith: We began on this site hoping that what we had was a 17th-century building. We do know we have two brick foundations. Last year, we began the excavation of only one of those buildings, and so we’ve had a chance to go back and look at only one. But, the one that we’ve selected is the one that we really thought could be a 17th-century building, and that was mainly because of the architectural types of materials that were turned up during the 1998 dig in that trash midden, produced some clay roofing tiles, which we have traced back to a tile kiln belonging to John Page, that was in operation in the 1660s. It produced window leads, which are the little pieces of lead that hold small windowpanes into casement windows, things that we typically think of as 17th-century. What we hoped that we had was a foundation that was there before all the streets were laid out, so, prior to 1699. And a building that was oriented along a ravine runs along the west side of the property.

This last year when we went back and were able to look at that foundation more closely, we dug a little bit of the trench that runs along the outside of that foundation, and recovered from that a collection of artifacts. What we do with those artifacts is, we find the most recent of them and use that to help us date the foundation. The most recent artifact in that builder’s trench dated to 1725. So this is a much later building than we thought it was, which makes some sense, but puts it in a whole different arena for us.

Lloyd: 1725, that 25 years is not a whole bunch of time, if that’s the latest thing you’ve got. Theoretically, if you dug down a bit, you would get earlier?
Meredith: You would get down earlier. We know that the building, though, dates to 1725. You’re right: 25 years is not a significant difference. What is means is that what we thought we had was a pre-Williamsburg building, and it is now a post-Williamsburg building. So it makes sort of a jump, there.

Lloyd: Ah, OK. There is a gap there. You wanted something before 1699 and you got 1725.

Meredith:  The one thing that we were very clear on at this point is that there is a 17th-century building in the very close vicinity. And what we now think happened is that they constructed a cellar in a ravine, using the ravine to do the heavy work of digging that cellar hole for them. So they constructed the cellar in the ravine, and then used the accumulated garbage from nearby to fill that ravine in to avoid water problems. What they were throwing into the ravine to fill in around the building seems to be 17th-century building material. So, somewhere close by, there is another building and it’s up to us to find out where it is.

Lloyd:  So your building from 1725 had a basement in the ravine, and the 16-prior material was stuff from someplace else that essentially, they built a dam with?

Meredith: Exactly. They built it up so that the water did not rush into their cellar, then they capped it off with a layer of clay, to make a level surface.

Lloyd: I can tell you one thing, they certainly weren’t thinking about 21st-century archaeologists, or they wouldn’t have done that.
Meredith: (Laughs.)  That’s absolutely right.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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