Students uncover artifacts at George Washington's boyhood home

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Eleanor Mudd, a senior anthropology major at Virginia Commonwealth University, is using a trowel to scrape the top layer of her 5-feet-by-5-feet square of dirt, when she spots a couple of tiny artifacts.

"Oh, hey! I think I found an animal bone," Mudd tells her partner, senior anthropology major Josiah Hunt. "And here's another piece of that plate."

Mudd and Hunt are among a number of VCU students taking part in the summer course Anthropology 375: Field Archaeology, an archaeological dig at Ferry Farm, a site near Fredericksburg that was George Washington's boyhood home from 1738 to 1754.

"History is the one main reason why I got into archaeology," Hunt said. "I've always been interested in history. Being a part of discovering things and being able to pick up artifacts and hold them in your hand, it can be really cool to be a part of that."

As part of the field school, the students are learning proper archaeological techniques as they find and identify artifacts – which have so far included wig curlers from Washington's era, Civil War bullets and American Indian projectile points dating back 5,000 years.

"They're learning the physical methods for doing archaeology – how to properly use a shovel, how to properly use a trowel. And how to carefully care for the archaeological record," said Bernard Means, Ph.D., director of the field school and a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. "They're not just digging and removing soil. They have to peel it off, layer by layer, sort of like peeling an onion, as they look for traces of past human occupation."

This summer, the field school students are working to excavate the yard of Washington's boyhood home.

"The [George Washington] Foundation hopes to recreate the landscape – the house, but also all of the dependencies that supported that house. What we've found in the yard on this side of the house [indicates that it was] a work yard," said Laura Galke, field director and artifact analyst at Ferry Farm. "We've been finding lots of ceramics related to making cheese [and] processing milk, and we've found a lot of wig hair curlers."

Ferry Farm, located along the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, is a notably rich archaeological site, Galke said, not only because of its connections to Washington, but also because it was the site of human occupations dating back thousands of years.

"This property was saved because it was George's home, but there were many families that lived here and used this property," she said. "One in five artifacts we find is actually American Indian. We have American Indian artifacts that go back 10,000 years."

Two families lived at Ferry Farm in the 1700s before the Washingtons. During the Civil War, it was the site of a Union encampment that was visited by Abraham Lincoln. And, in the 20th century, it was the site of a home that burned down in the 1990s.

On a recent afternoon, Lauren Volkers, the field school's teaching assistant and an excavation intern, and Vivian Hite, a field school public archaeologist and excavation intern, were working on excavating a brick walkway from the 20th century house. Volkers and Hite are both VCU alumni who took the ANTH 375 class in Summer 2013.

"There was a home here that burned down in '96," Hite said. "So we find remnants of utility pipes and things like that, all throughout the stratigraphy and landscape."

Nearby, John Bush, a senior anthropology major, was excavating a utility trench from the 20th century.

"So what you do when you uncover a feature like that, you stop excavating the whole unit and you focus on excavating that feature first," Bush explained. "So we're basically now digging a trench through our unit and we're screening the dirt that's coming out of that."

"[We've found] a lot of coal, which we think is from 20th century heating of the home that was here," he added. "A lot of nails, construction debris, glass, both bottles and plates, ceramics."

Bush said the field school has been invaluable, both for the hands-on experience in archaeology and the  the historical importance of the work.

"It's been very rewarding to contribute, in just a small way, to the historical record and it's been really great to take what we've learned in Dr. Means' classes and have them be made physical," he said.

Senior anthropology major Sarah Perdue, who was working with Bush, said the dig had been rewarding, yet also physically exhausting.

"I'm not used to this, so last week I started feeling muscles that I hadn't used before because it's very labor intensive, but I like it," she said. "I like finding things, even though they're not something like dinosaur bones. I like that I'm contributing to the archaeological record here and to the history of George Washington, especially."

For much of June, the students had to deal with scorching hot temperatures while digging.

 "They're lucky," Means said. "They're learning how to do archaeology in the hottest, most humid weather and with some of the most complex soils. After this, everything's going to just be gravy."

The field school is not just digging at Ferry Farm. The class also takes field trips to other historical sites and digs in Virginia, including Mount Vernon, Montpelier and Jamestown.

The visits to other sites are meant to demonstrate to the students how to interpret the past.

"One of the things about being an archaeologist is that you have to be able to interact with the public," Means said. "This is a public dig. There are people [and] school groups coming up here on a regular basis. And so you need to be able to know how to interpret the past."

For example, Means said, the public will commonly ask whether they have found any gold or dinosaur bones. It is important, he said, to know how to respond and explain the difference between archaeology and paleontology.

"I'm sure paleontologists have the same problem," he joked.

Ivana Adzik, a senior anthropology major, said she has enjoyed the fact that the task is not simply digging, it also involves interpretation of the artifacts.

"I thought it was mostly just going to be [about learning] technique. But we are really heavily involved with the interpretation," she said. "For example, right here we have some discoloration, which is something we have to consider. There could possibly be a trench underneath or it could be a type of a post. We don't know yet."

Galke and the other archaeologists will often ask the students for their interpretation or their first instinct, Adzik said.

"Because while they obviously know way more than we do, we are very familiar with the 5-by-5 units that we're excavating," she said. "You become very attached. I dream about it."

For Mudd, the field school experience has been "hot, but fun."

"On the second day, we started taking off the top soil, the grass," she said. "And then a couple days later we got to the 20th century. Eventually we got to the antebellum and we've been finding a lot of stuff – bullets, ceramics, fire-cracked rock – a stone tool. That was pretty cool. It was really shiny."

Since then, she said, she and Hunt have continued to find interesting artifacts.

"It's been pretty exciting," she said. "At first we didn't find anything and we were kind of bummed. But then we started finding all this stuff, and it was like, 'yay!'"


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