Esther White / Director of Archaeology
After opening square 328 at the end of the 1990 excavation season and spending the winter cataloguing and analyzing the artifacts, we were more than ready to return to the south grove in June 1991. Our goal this summer was to uncover the midden by opening squares adjacent to unit 328 and excavate them down to the top of the feature. Of course we probably assumed we’d then dig the rich trash layers during the second half of the summer – I don’t think we had any idea of the size and complexity of this archaeological feature, or any sense of how long this excavation might take.
We once again taught the George Mason University archaeological field school. The 1991 supervisors were Christy Leeson, Anna Borden, Bill Reid and Gina Haney and at the end of the class we hired Susannah Dean to assist with our first field school with Gallaudet University. We all enrolled in American Sign Language classes before the field school started to learn how to communicate with these deaf and hard of hearing college students.
Susannah, Bill and Christy spent much of their summer in the north end of the holly hole area, close to the kitchen yard, working on a brick drain from two generations of kitchens (the pre-1775 and the post-1775 extant one) and two intriguing large structural postholes that we have always thought might represent the earliest kitchen. The rest of us moved east to expose the midden.
Without any sense of the midden’s size, we surveyed 10 x 10 foot squares north and south of 328 and three to the east (towards the Potomac River) since the soils in 328 indicated that the feature went that direction. Just below the topsoil we encountered several large rectangles and many linear outlines filled with mottled orange and brown silty clays – for anyone who has dug at Mount Vernon you’ll recognize these feature types – the exploratory trench and the utility line. Square 328, was one of the few 10 x 10 foot squares at Mount Vernon not impacted by a twentieth-century intrusion.
Because archaeologists work backwards through time, we remove intrusions and modern (twentieth-century) utility lines first because they are the most recent layers of soil. These intrusions do provide us with a “free peek” at the stratigraphy or layers of soil that they cut, so that’s always a small treat, and of course because these cut the rich midden layers, we found lots (and lots) of artifacts in the 3/8” screen, but sadly, because they are no longer in their original context these artifacts are not helpful in answering our research questions.
The highlights of 1991 included seeing the large circular brick drain in square 349 and the juncture where it changed to rectangular construction in 329. These were two of the exploratory holes dug in the 1930s by Morley Williams, a landscape architect from Harvard studying Mount Vernon’s evolution. We also began finding a lot of colonoware, a low-fired, locally produced, coarse earthenware that archaeologists think might have been made by enslaved potters. Initially we were surprised to find so much colonoware in the kitchen trash, but we now think the enslaved cooks were using these small bowls and large milkpans alongside imported English and Rhenish ceramics to process and prepare food. We also found the Gen. Washington trunk plate, but didn’t recognize it until a volunteer was washing it that winter.
We didn’t excavate any midden soils in 1991. Over the winter we processed artifacts, counted and analyzed the colonoware while visions of “dancing platters” kept us enthused for more excavation.