The Midden Gets Plastered!

Laura Tancredi / Archaeology Laboratory Assistant

Cross section of the midden with plaster layer at top.

Throughout his adult life, George Washington conducted a great deal of transformation to his Mount Vernon estate.  Under the ownership of George’s elder half-brother Lawrence Washington, Mount Vernon was a modest one and a half story home with four rooms on the ground floor, and four additional rooms “wedged in under the eaves” above.   Shortly after leasing the estate from Lawrence’s widow, Anne Washington Lee, Washington began to make plans for a renovation.   By 1759, the main house had been raised to a full two-story building, a process which involved a great deal of construction.  Part of this overhaul included “puling down the old plastering and leaths out of the rooms.”  It is from this construction project that we find the South Grove Midden Plaster Layer. 

Drawing of Lawrence Washington’s Mount Vernon by Julia Kennedy

Plaster fragments were excavated from the South Grove Midden in great abundance and extended the length of the midden.  This large deposit served as one of the tools for dating the midden.  Any layers below plaster would pre-date renovation of the mansion while those above would post-date.  Since George Washington began this expansion at the beginning of his occupation at Mount Vernon, archaeologists were able to separate the layers deposited during Lawrence Washington’s occupation from those of the households that came later.  But are there any other things plaster tells us about the Washington household beyond dates of midden use?  While by and large the excavated plaster is relatively uniform (in composition if not in size), there are several more diagnostic fragments which allow for interesting speculation. 

Red plaster fragments excavated from the midden.

Nearly all of the finished plaster fragments excavated from the midden have a plain whitewashed surface; however a few have survived which have traces of red pigment on top of the whitewash.   Although the origin of these few plaster fragments cannot conclusively be determined, the probate inventory taken after Lawrence Washington’s death refers to a “Red Room.”  Perhaps these fragments have survived from construction done on this room?  Other plaster fragments are plain corner fragments hinting at the shape of window and door surrounds.  Once we have completed the catalogue of these artifacts I’m sure we’ll learn even more about the appearance of the Lawrence Washington’s early Mount Vernon from the plaster found within the South Grove.

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