Ornamental Separator

Breaking New Ground

Archaeology team embarks on three new projects that attempt to connect communities past and present

So much work has gone into the restoration of Williamsburg that you might think there’s little more to be discovered. But three major archaeological initiatives, two of which are already underway, suggest that’s not the case. And, Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Archaeology Jack Gary notes that these projects, all made possible by donors, are very different and represent the varied and changing nature of archaeology.

Furthest along is the work at Custis Square, a 4-acre lot on the south side of town. John Custis IV, the father of Martha Washington’s first husband and one of Williamsburg’s wealthiest residents, lived there from 1717 to 1749.

Custis was a serious gardener, as indicated by his correspondence with, among others, the London botanist Peter Collinson. Since Williamsburg’s gardens are so beloved, one aim of the project is to learn about one of the town’s most important gardens with an eye toward someday re-creating it. Archaeologists started to dig in March 2019 and have already found planting holes that may be related to some of the hundreds of different varieties of plants Custis grew in this garden.

So far about 160,000 artifacts have been unearthed and taken to the archaeology lab to be analyzed.

Custis was not only among the wealthiest of Williamsburg’s residents, he was also among the most ornery. He feuded with Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who cut down trees on Custis’ property in order to create a vista for the Governor’s Palace.

Custis’ son inherited the property and when he died, his widow, Martha, took control. Less than two years later, on her marriage to George Washington, he took over managing the properties. The Washingtons rented out the house and property from 1757 to 1779 to various characters, including William Byrd III and Joseph Kidd, an English upholsterer brought over by Lord Botetourt when he was governor of Virginia.

But archaeologists are just as interested in learning about the enslaved African Americans who worked on the property. Among the finds at the site have been two pits, one containing the skeleton of a cow’s foot and one the skeleton of a full chicken, except for its head.

“It’s too soon to reach any conclusions as to what these things mean,” Gary said, “but my mind goes to some type of ritual. There’s ample evidence of animal sacrifices in some cultures. In order to make this argument we will need to understand how these pit features fit into the larger landscape and look for other archaeological examples at other sites.”

The point, Gary said, is that archaeologists hope to learn not just about buildings and gardens but also about the people who lived and worked here and, for the enslaved, how they negotiated and resisted their bondage.

“At the end of the day, archaeology is about people,” he said. “Yes, we get information to reconstruct things. But I’ve always wanted archaeology to be a way for people today to make an emotional connection with the past.”

A Public Profession

The Custis project is open to the public, and guests wander around the site and talk with archaeologists in the field. In the spring there will also be guided tours. The public nature of a project is a key element of Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeology under Gary’s leadership.

“Looking at things coming out of the ground, people can see the reality of the times in a way they can’t when they’re hearing about abstract ideas,” he said. “They can see themselves in whatever was going on. Archaeology can start to put people back into the landscape.”

Archaeologists on the Custis site have found colonoware, a type of ceramic attributed to African American and Native American potters. They have also found projectile points, commonly called “arrowheads,” some dating back 4,000–5,000 years. The projectile points are already on display as part of Every Article...suitable for this Country: Furnishing Early Williamsburg, an exhibition at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

The public nature of archaeology will be further enhanced when a new laboratory opens right across the street from the new entrance to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. That space, which will be part of the planned Colin G. and Nancy N. Campbell Archaeology Center, will give guests more opportunities to interact with researchers and with the collection.

The new archaeology center was part of what attracted Gary to Colonial Williamsburg in 2018. Well before then, though, archaeology had drawn Gary to town. High school teachers who knew of his interest in the field urged him to attend William & Mary, and he did so, majoring in anthropology with a concentration in archaeology. He attended the university’s field school, held at Colonial Williamsburg, and he also loved spending time in the museums, surrounded by artifacts from the past.

Gary earned his master’s in historical archaeology from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2005, and before joining Colonial Williamsburg, he was director of archaeology and landscapes at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

Starting Conversations

A second major project got underway in September on Nassau Street at the site of the first Black church in Williamsburg.

A church built in 1856 remained until the 1950s, but documentary evidence indicates a Baptist meetinghouse stood there in 1818. Archaeologists are looking for evidence of a church built in the 18th or early 19th century.

The first phase of the project consists of a traditional goal of archaeology — finding the remains of a building and figuring out what it looked like. But the goal is not just to reconstruct the building, though Gary hopes that might come to pass. It is also to learn about the people who came together to celebrate their faith.

“People don’t live in churches,” Gary said, “but the artifacts that they left behind can tell us about the people who worshipped here.”

As archaeologists look for answers to their initial questions, they may formulate new questions about the site and its people. To help them do so, they will look to the community, especially members of Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church.

“Archaeologists can’t work in a vacuum, particularly when the communities we study still exist,” Gary said. “In the case of this project, we feel that we work for the congregation to answer their questions and provide new information to help them tell their story. Archaeology is a way to get people together and start conversations.”


A third major project, still in the planning stage, is to excavate the backyard of the Raleigh Tavern.

The tavern was the site of many crucial political discussions, including those between the burgesses after the royal governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses in 1774. It was reconstructed between 1929 and 1932 after excavations revealed its foundations. Its porch was reconstructed in 2017 after documentary evidence and archaeologists confirmed it had been in place before 1773.

Still, for all the attention paid to the building, very little work has been done on its back lot, and that’s where enslaved laborers did the work needed to run the tavern.

“If we want to accurately portray all sides of life in Williamsburg, we need to do a lot more in that space,” Gary said. “We will not be excavating a building in this case, but we will be learning about what people did in this space and what their lives were really like.”

In this case, the ultimate goal will not be to reconstruct a building but to inform the work of historic interpreters. Collaborating with interpreters has been one of Gary’s goals, just as working with curators and the community has been.

“Colonial Williamsburg has been a leader in historical archaeology since the program began in the 1920s,” said Ronald L. Hurst, vice president for Museums, Preservation and Historic Resources, “always advancing as the field’s goals and techniques evolved over time. And now, with his deep knowledge, keen insight and remarkable leadership skills, Jack is the perfect person to lead our archaeology team as we address a whole new set of questions about the past.”

The Colin G. and Nancy N. Campbell Archaeology Center is being made possible through the generous lead donation of the late Forrest E. Mars Jr.

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