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.”