The midden after excavation with O&M staff are probing for the drain to the south.
By Esther White / Director of Historic Preservation & Research
After the excitement and discoveries in the midden during 1993, the 1994 field season was somewhat anticlimactic. During 1993, we excavated fairly intensively from June until early November, removing the midden, processing those pre-1775 layers through waterscreening and flotation to recover all the smallest artifacts, fish bones, charcoal and seeds. In 1994 Todd Bonshire returned to help supervise, along with Curt Breckenridge and two former students, Lisa Plumley and Betsy Alexander. We ran an independent field school and hired two of those students Amy Segal and Isabel Parker to assist with the field work after the class ended.
Some of the rhyolite flakes found in the prehistoric layers.
Because we didn’t have much work to do at the south grove, we continued excavations begun in 1993 exploring George Washington dung repository, a structure devoted to making fertilizer for the nearby gardens and orchard. A couple of us ventured to the midden, or the depression left after completely excavating the midden, and worked on about 10 remaining layers as well as final documentation.
Inside the brick drain looking north to the Mansion.
The strata excavated during 1994 were the surrounding layers of old topsoil present when the Washington family began building the Mansion in 1735. Although there were very few historic artifacts in these layers, they were full of quartz, quartzite and rhyolite flakes, debris left behind by the Native Americans who lived here. We don’t think there were any Indians living here when the Washington family first patented the property in 1674. Instead, the evidence (types of projectile points found, lack of Native American pottery and presence of a few pieces of steatite) suggests that Native American’s primarily lived on this hill between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago – during the Late Archaic Period.
The large porcelain plate rim was found inside the brick drain.
At that time, people were nomadic, camping to hunt, fish and gather fruits and nuts seasonally. I imagine that the spring, when the shad and herring were running in the Potomac River, and fall, when ducks and geese were abundant, might have been nice times to be camped at this spot with its commanding view of the Potomac River and Piscataway Creek.
The drain and outline of the natural depression are visible on the final plan.
We excavated a small 5 x 5 foot test unit in square 309 until we stopped finding these flakes which were discarded while making and resharpening stone tools. Because most of the soil color has leached out of these prehistoric layers, it can be almost impossible to see archaeological features at Late Archaic sites in our part of Virginia which makes excavation according to natural layers impossible. At Mount Vernon we dig these prehistoric layers in arbitrary increments of 0.3 inches.
The archaeological grid on the final plan.
Besides the old historic topsoil and the prehistoric layers, we also opened up part of the brick drain. Most of the drain was in great shape, with the exception of one small section. Before our restoration mason repaired it, we looked inside and took some photos. There were only a few inches of silt in the drain. I was able to take a couple of photos and recover a large fragment of a Chinese porcelain plate. Our O&M staff tried to follow the drain by probing, but we lost it just a few feet to the south of the excavation.
The interpreted GIS of the final plan.
Our final task was to record a detailed plan view of the site after excavation which included the brick drain. Dennis Pogue did this meticulous work, putting his patience, attention to detail and artistic skills to good use for this map. We also took final photos, but unfortunately, something was wrong with our film (remember those days) so when we got them developed they’re not good quality. With those final tasks completed we backfilled the site. Today, it’s hard to tell where the midden was located.
Our horticulturalist Dean took this great shot of the south grove with the two pecan trees.
The southern of the two pecan trees came down in 2003 during Hurricane Irene. The pecans, planted during the 1850s, were good markers with the midden in between them and for a while you could see the outline of the midden through the grass, but today it remains in memory and in a future website www.mountvernonmidden.org that will launch in a few weeks.