Ornamental Separator

Ongoing Archaeology Projects

Many of you have been keeping up with the archaeological projects at Custis Square and at the site of the Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg on Nassau Street—but did you know that excavations are happening behind the scenes too? Each time Colonial Williamsburg’s historic landscape is modified, whether it’s to make way for infrastructure improvements or for the placement of a new interpretive experience, our archaeologists are working to ensure that archaeological resources are identified and preserved. This year, we’ll be conducting several small-scale excavations that will help us to understand parts of the historic area that have never been fully explored and will inform how we protect and interpret those resources in the future. The next time you visit Colonial Williamsburg, keep an eye out for archaeology in unexpected places and, in the meantime, take a sneak peek at some of our ongoing projects below!

Revolutionary War barracks

Military Buckle
Glass button inlay. Side 1
Lead Musket Ball

Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists have uncovered evidence indicating the remains of a Revolutionary War barracks on Foundation property located near the Colonial Williamsburg Regional Visitor Center. Eighteenth-century maps of the area and numerous documents from the period reference a barracks constructed in 1776-1777 to accommodate up to 2,000 soldiers and 100 horses. The barracks are thought to have been destroyed by fire in 1781 by General Cornwallis’ troops on their route to Yorktown.

Archaeological evidence of continental barracks in Virginia is rare. This site, which was occupied from 1777-1781, is particularly valuable since it was built and used only for one purpose. In addition, a significant portion of the site has been largely undisturbed since the barracks were destroyed.

The barracks were discovered during archaeological excavation of the site identified by the Historic Triangle Recreational Facilities Authority (HTRFA) as the preferred location for a proposed regional indoor sports center prior to the finalization of the project proposal. This excavation was done in keeping with Foundation protocol to ensure that invaluable archaeological artifacts are not destroyed by new construction. As a result of the discovery, the footprint of the sports center was shifted to preserve the site for future excavation and research. This site will tell an understudied story of Williamsburg’s military involvement during the Revolutionary War by offering new information about the daily lives of soldiers. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation plans to revisit the site in the coming years to inform public interpretation of Williamsburg’s important role in the American Revolution.


  • Initial excavation conducted in the summer of 2023 revealed bricks and artifacts from the mid-1700s and intact chimney bases.
  • Key artifacts include gun hardware, lead shot with toothmarks (chewed by bored soldiers because the lead was sweet), and high-end ceramics and personal adornment items indicating that the barracks were occupied by officers.
  • The barracks site is estimated to be roughly three to four acres large. Currently, only a small percentage of the site has been excavated.
  • The barracks site is currently covered back up to preserve the artifacts during the construction of the adjacent sports complex.

Read more about the discovery of these Revolutionary War barracks in the Washington Post article Burned by the British in 1781, lost barracks are found in Williamsburg.


In late March, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists discovered the foundation of a 17th-century building at the construction site of the new Colin G. and Nancy N. Campbell Archaeology Center (located across the street from the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg). Because it is located within the footprint of the new archaeology building, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists are fully excavating the site to extract and preserve information and artifacts.

  • Based on preliminary excavation, the building was constructed in the late 1600s, when Williamsburg was known as Middle Plantation and before the capital of Virginia moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg.
  • The building likely stood until the 1720s/30s.
  • The brick foundation measures 32’ by 24’ and includes a cellar. A well was also discovered about 40’ from the foundation.
  • Artifacts recovered from the site include imported ceramics, wig curlers and diamond-shaped glass window panes, suggesting that the household was wealthy.
  • Prior to construction, the site was covered by a 1960s parking lot; the area has been used for parking since the days when Eastern State Hospital occupied the property.

Wetherburns Tavern West Porch Excavation

Excavators recovering intact bottles during the 1960s excavations at Wetherburn's Tavern.
Brick support for the Wetherburns Tavern front porch.
Map of Wetherburn's Tavern showing the possible locations of brick porch supports and our excavation blocks in red.

This year, students from the William and Mary archaeological field methods course, under the supervision of the Colonial Williamsburg Department of Archaeology, will be excavating the western portion of the front porch of Wetherburn’s Tavern. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation acquired the building in 1964 and spent the next several years researching the structure and its 18th-century occupants. Archaeological excavations during this time focused on the cellars and backyard of the building and recovered a treasure trove of artifacts relating to the use of this building as a tavern. Plates, glassware, utensils, and the remains of animals and plants found in two 18th-century wells paint an evocative picture of the dining and drinking rituals which occurred here. In one of the most spectacular and unique archaeological discoveries in Williamsburg, excavators recovered dozens of complete wine bottles filled with cherries that had been buried around the structure in the mid-18th century. Moreover, careful examinations of the cellars and foundations of the structure provided key information about the sequence and timing of construction events as the building’s footprint expanded several times over the course of the 18th century. Drawing upon the results of these excavations and other research projects, the structure was returned to its mid-18th-century appearance and was opened to the public as an exhibit.

However, recent research suggests that the building had a large front porch in the 18th century which was overlooked during the renovations in the 1960s. This porch seems to have been built on the northern wall of the building, along Duke of Gloucester Street, sometime after 1751 and was demolished sometime in the last decade or so of the 18th century. While this new research proves when the porch was constructed and when it was demolished, the full size of the front porch is still uncertain. The two easternmost brick supports of the porch have been found, indicating where the eastern end of the porch was, but it is not clear how far west it extended. One of the long-term re-interpretation goals for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is to restore the 18th-century front porches to the taverns. Therefore, this project has two goals:

1) Determine the total size and footprint of the 18th-century front porch on Wetherburn’s Tavern so it can be accurately reconstructed.

2) Mitigate any intact archaeological features or layers which might be damaged by the reconstruction of the front porch.

To do so, we will excavate two blocks of units along the western façade of the Wetherburns Tavern. Block A is a 7x3 meter area directly west of the western door (Stoop B), while Block B is a 4 m by 3 m area between the two doors (Stoops A and B). These blocks are placed to capture as many of the locations where brick supports could be located as possible.


In the Fall of 2018, Colonial Williamsburg began a project investigating our large collection of colonoware vessels and fragments. Our goal is to identify how this ceramic type was used in the 18th century by diverse groups of people, including enslaved African Americans, tavern keepers, and tradesmen by exploring spatial or temporal patterns in the distribution of colonoware across sites inside and outside Williamsburg.

Colonoware is a type of locally-produced coarse earthenware ceramic commonly found on colonial period archaeological sites. In 1962, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume was the first to recognize colonoware as a distinct ceramic type. At the time, he called it “Colono-Indian ware” because he thought that Native Americans produced the ware and sold it to English colonists. Since then, many scholars have argued that enslaved African Americans could have also produced and sold these ceramics. While there is debate over who produced these pots, it is clear they were an important part of the local economy for both the potters making them and the individuals using them every day. For this reason, our study focuses on the pots themselves to help answer questions about who made them, who used them, where were they used, and whether any of these things changed over time.

Our research began with the identification of attributes for over 2,000 pieces of colonoware from historic sites where free and enslaved individuals lived and worked within and directly outside Williamsburg. Most pieces of colonoware contain temper, which is a material like sand or crushed shell that is blended into the clay when the pot is made to prevent cracking and shrinkage during the firing process. Though often appearing plain or undecorated, most colonoware vessels have highly burnished or shiny surfaces and some examples in our collection feature sawtooth or scalloped rim decorations. Colonoware was also made in a variety of vessel shapes. In addition to the chamber pot pictured here, colonoware vessels include plates, pans, pipkins, bowls, and porringers. For this project, Colonial Williamsburg Archaeology Lab Technicians and a graduate student from William & Mary recorded the temper, decoration style, vessel form and many other traits of each colonoware fragment in a spreadsheet. Analysis of this data showed that there were two or three distinct “types” of colonoware, with the primary difference being whether the sherds contained sand or shell temper.

These types may represent different groups of potters, or they may reflect different kinds of temper used for specific vessel forms by the same potting group. To investigate these “types” further, we have chosen a subset of our collection that reflect these “types” in several different vessel forms for special analysis. These samples will undergo both portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) and laser ablation analysis in early 2022. We hope these techniques will help us identify the chemical composition of the clay used to make these pots, which might then be used to identify if multiple potters were making the “types” from different clays, or if all the types used the same clays and might have been made by the same potters. With these, we hope to compare the smaller sample size with the larger attribute analysis data to determine if there are any stronger spatial or temporal patterns in the distribution of colonoware throughout the historic Williamsburg area.

Magazine Site Project

In July 2021, we began an archaeological excavation of the Magazine to better understand the structure's appearance and use in 1775, when it served as the central storehouse for military supplies in Williamsburg. The building was heavily renovated in the late 1800s, leaving few clues behind to indicate what it looked like during the pivotal events of the American Revolution. However, once we started looking below ground in the courtyard around the Magazine, we found a treasure trove of artifacts--each one telling a small part of a grand narrative about the history of this 300-year-old building.

Careful excavation of the Magazine courtyard revealed cannonballs and bullets left by soldiers during the Civil War, when the building was briefly used as an arsenal by the Confederate Army, along with an unexpected discovery—a mass burial containing the remains of four Confederate Civil War soldiers and a surgeon’s pit containing three amputated legs. Archaeological and documentary evidence tells us that these were the casualties of the Battle of Williamsburg hastily buried near the Magazine after they died in a nearby church that served as a hospital during the war. A number of artifacts were discovered alongside the remains including a toothbrush, a porcelain snuff bottle, a trouser buckle and two gold coins. Ongoing analysis of the remains, the artifacts, and documents from the historical record including account books and newspaper accounts is helping us narrow in on the possible identities of these soldiers. Ultimately, our goal is to reinter them in a cemetery where they will not be harmed by restoration work on the Magazine.

Digging deeper into the soil, and earlier in time, we found shattered plates and bowls, remnants of dishes that were sold by merchants who used the Magazine as a market house in the early 1800s. As we reached the earliest soil layers, we began to find stone gunflints used to fire 18th-century flintlock muskets and round lead bullets, objects once stored in the Magazine. Along with the expected military implements were broken clay tobacco pipes, likely smoked by bored guardsmen as they wiled the hours away until their shifts protecting the Magazine and its stores ended for the day.

Most exciting for us were the tantalizing clues telling us how the building may have looked in the past. For example, we uncovered hundreds of broken clay tiles once used as roofing shingles. Pieces of window glass discovered from deposits dating to the first half of the 18th century indicate that the building had many large windows when it was first constructed, along with a tall flagpole that would have been raised in the courtyard, allowing military flags to be flown above the surrounding brick walls. All of these pieces of evidence were recovered in the field. Still, as the work continues in the lab, we will undoubtedly discover even more clues to the Magazine's use and appearance that will help solve some of the remaining mysteries of Williamsburg's colonial past.

Other Archaeology Projects

Custis Square

Our archaeologists are in the middle of a 5-year exploration of Custis Square, the 4-acre pasture across from the Art Museums where the 18th-century home and gardens of John Custis IV once stood. Learn more.

First Baptist Church

Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists are also excavating the site of First Baptist Church, one of America’s oldest churches founded entirely by Blacks, under the guidance of the congregation. Learn more.

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