A while back, I signed up for a blog site. Thought it might be a good idea. Lots of people are doing it and many seem interested in them. What HAVE I DONE?

It’s been a while since I set up this blog site. I’m what you could call a freelance archaeologist — one who, over the last few years, has been having some doubts. Thought the blog might be a way to spend some time with ideas and work on setting them to the page/screen. But an opportunity came up. I took a chance to work with a friend for the summer field season at Ferry Farm, The Boyhood Home of George Washington near Fredericksburg, VA. I spent the last three months assisting with fieldwork and two Field Schools (one through University of South Florida and the other through Virginia Commonwealth University).

George Washington's Ferry Farm, Fredericksburg, VA

George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Fredericksburg, VA

It was a different sort of archaeological site for me. Most of my career has been focused on urban sites–neighborhood sites. The plantation home of a founding father and first president is a bit out of the norm for me. I, of course, knew of George Washington. Many, many scholars have studied his life and continue to make him the center of their work. There are enough people with great interest that I never considered spending my time researching George’s life. However, the opportunity came at the right time when I was ready to get outdoors.

In many ways, it was an ideal situation. I enjoy fieldwork. The work can be hot, difficult, slow and at times frustrating. But I figured that working outside in a beautiful spot alongside the Rappahannock River – at a site that I have no long term connections with – would be a welcome distraction.

Excavations provide numerous puzzles. Starting to piece together the forces that created what you are looking at takes considerable effort but can prove immensely satisfying. I have been associated and even taught multiple field schools over my career. This summer, however, I wasn’t the one in charge. I got to spend time with the students and help guide them through everyday procedures of field work, but it was not me who was ultimately responsible for their experience. I got to enjoy their genuine eagerness at exploring the archaeological record. I relate to their desire “to know” and their frustration with being confused with incomplete data.

One of the puzzles we encountered this past summer was a series of ca. 1′ diameter holes in what was determined to be a colonial layer. The soil stains were initially perplexing. We would document and excavate them, and then turn back to the colonial layer only to encounter another a few feet away. They were just slowing us down and providing little by way of associated artifacts. These holes were spaced 8 to 15 feet apart. No clear pattern is yet discernible, but they DID line up with the landscape and the alignment of the known Washington House and outbuildings. Some sort explanation is necessary. The current working theory is that these are planting holes. They represent isolated plantings and are not suggestive of garden beds. Their spacing is close enough that they don’t seem to be from trees in an orchard. The current thought is that they represent some sort of …[wait for it]… shrubbery [this still makes me snicker].


Now I know, this doesn’t seem earth shattering. We spent a lot of time contemplating what it was we were looking at for much of this season. So there were bushes planted on the back side of the Washington home …is that it? Turns out, there is not a lot known about this part of Washington’s life. George’s family moved to the farm overlooking Fredericksburg when he was 6 years old. His father died and George was named as inheritor of the Farm (and 10 enslaved individuals) at age 11. His mother, Mary, would oversee the farm until George would come of age. This was George’s home from age 6 to about 20. There are stories of George’s boyhood – the cherry tree and the silver dollar – but little besides these mythic tales. Details of the landscape start to flesh out George’s younger days. The bushes get in the way of our mythic visions of young George playing hoops behind his home (of course, with his hatchet in his back pocket).


Not far from the planting holes was a small area where more than 100 wig hair curlers have been found [that is a considerable number of wig curlers]. When George and his three younger brothers were living at the farm, there must have been some serious hair maintenance going on. That work was undertaken by enslaved workers – a reminder of the very nature of the plantation system and what it took to maintain planter status in the colony of Virginia. The small discarded objects and the area of yard behind the house where they were found help paint a picture of everyday life on the plantation.

What I thought would be an easy summer distraction served as a reminder of just why I have come to love archaeology. It is never simple. The work is slow and at times tedious, but the archaeology complicates what we think we know. The landscape is rarely straightforward and easy to understand. The artifacts are rarely in one piece. The conceptions we came with don’t always hold up. However, dealing in messiness has its rewards. This past summer’s field season has helped settle some of my doubts…