Wren's Formal Garden

Wren Building

After three summers of digging, archaeologist Steve Archer hits pay dirt.

Learn more: The Wren building.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

With me today is Steve Archer, who is a research associate at Colonial Williamsburg, and an adjunct professor at William and Mary. He's had the good fortune to make an important discovery at William and Mary's Wren building.

If I have read the articles correctly, eventually, you found what you were looking for, but it didn't start out that way.

Steve Archer: Eventually, yeah. We've had three seasons out in front of the Wren building, doing the archaeology out there. The point of the projects is to look for a formal garden that was depicted on a copper plate engraving. It's one of the last pieces of Williamsburg as sort of a visual anchor for the town. We know about the Capitol, and the Governor's Palace, and the Wren building itself –which was the original College of William and Mary – but there's been some scholarly debate as to whether a formal garden depicted on that plate actually existed or not.

So, we've had several chances – probably more chances than a lot of archaeologists get – to go and look for it. We started in 2005, and had a season out there where we didn't find exactly what we were looking for. We did a long summer with a lot of great students, and really came up empty, finding a lot of disturbance in one part of the yard. Then, we moved on last year in 2006, giving it one last shot. We had a little money left in the budget, and we said, "Hey, we'll go for it one more time, move to a different part of the yard." We were lucky to find these little planting holes that were lined up at 18-foot intervals, which is a common architectural landscape measurement of the time, 18 feet. A lot of 18th century formal gardens are laid out with that as a unit: 18 and nine feet intervals. It gave us enough hope to keep going. We ended up this year with a lot more of that original garden.  

Lloyd: You were working with archaeology students?

Steve: Yeah, this is a little bit different than some kinds of projects that Colonial Williamsburg does; we have in-house archaeologists. But this is a joint project between the college and Colonial Williamsburg, which is really a great, productive working relationship. Each summer, we have students from the College of William and Mary that want to learn how to do basic archaeological field excavation. So, we've had the fortunate circumstance to be able to have really good students each summer, eager to learn how to do archaeology in the field. Of course that's only one part of archaeology, but they really get some good training, because we have 50 years of archaeological experience here to draw on.

Lloyd: And there's nothing like not finding what you're looking for the first summer.

Steve: (Chuckles.) Well, it's amazing actually, because you can sometimes make silk purses out of sow's ears with archaeology. We didn't find exactly what we were looking for that first year, but we were able to have the students follow up and do a course in the fall after the summer excavations, and really take a look at the methodology we used. Where should we be looking for this garden? They did research projects over the course of a semester that made finding nothing a good direction post to finding something later on.

Lloyd: One of the benefits to finding nothing is, you know it's not there, so you better move.

Steve: That's very true.

Lloyd: If I have read the reporting correctly, the Bodleian plate that shows the formal gardens at the Wren building turns out to be correct. That's the way it was.

Steve: It seems to be very accurate. We've found a few things that aren't depicted on the Bodleian plate that are giving us a little bit of a different sense of what it's all about, but in general, the major features on that are pretty accurate. We have other maps that are from the later 18th century – the Bodleian plate's from about 1740 – that show a completely different layout of that garden. We've found just very ephemeral traces of it. It seems that there was a modification of the landscape design sometime in the late 18th century, where that formal garden went away. It was replaced by something, but we're not quite sure what.

Lloyd: My curiosity is: now that you are reasonably confident that you can say with some assurance that this existed here, are you going to replant it, ever?

Steve: That's sort of not a decision for the archaeologist. We don't get a say in that. My position as an archaeologist is really to advocate for preservation, in a lot of ways. If we can preserve what's there, all the better. There are people who would love to see that landscape restored, because it really would be a quite different look at the college. Right now, if you look at the college from Williamsburg, it's very obscured by trees. A lot of people don't care for that.

Lloyd: A lumberjack's gonna have some good work going there to get that land cleared.

Steve: Right, they've been called "arboricidal maniacs." They'd like to see the trees go away. There's also a history of that landscape that's existed since the 19th century out there, too. That's historic in its own right. The decision to restore it is not one that's just an easily glommed-onto kind of project to do. You want to think about what do you really know about that garden. We don't have the whole garden. It's not completely preserved pristinely. We're not talking about a Pompeii situation there. We have just a very slight remnant of the planting holes and some of the features out there, because it has been damaged from 20th century utility work. The restoration of the Wren building itself has caused a lot of damage to that site as a resource.

My primary responsibility as an archaeologist, the main thing that I'm doing of immediate importance, is stopping that damage. Once we know where those planting holes and the little tiny, tiny, really ephemeral kinds of features that we're finding, figuring out where those are is going to help the college plan for the next 50 years. If a new utility line is going in there, we know we don't want to put it right through the garden anymore. We've spent a lot of time excavating sewer lines out there.

Lloyd: Is the excavation over?

Steve: For the time being, yeah. We said that we're going to give this a good 10-week shot this summer. We did that, and we have a lot of material to analyze, and really look at it. Of course, things change. We don’t know if we want to go ahead and do another round out there. No plans currently, but if the garden were to be restored, if the powers that be decided on doing that, there would need to be more archaeology out there.

Lloyd: Because you said there was also a 19th century history, when you restore it, that's a question, isn't it? Which period do you restore to?

Steve: Well it's interesting, because the Wren building itself is not restored to its quote-unquote original form. It's restored to the second form of the building. The building burned in 1705, and there was better documentation about what the building looked like between 1705 in the 19th century than there was the original design of the building in the late 1690s. So, even the Wren building itself is not restored to its quote-unquote original period.

Lloyd: What would the Wren building look like if you restored the garden and took the trees out? What would college visitor look across the lawn and see?

Steve: It would have been very impressive, I think. First of all, you would have been able to see the college from Williamsburg. What you would see would be basically a symmetrical division. The north and south sides of the garden would look the same. It was this Georgian symmetry that was the architectural rage of the day. Central axis leading into the main Wren building, surrounded by two large lawn beds, and those would be ringed by very highly sculpted topiary trees that were alternately – as depicted on the Bodleian plate – that were alternately sculpted into pyramid shapes and ball shapes. It would have looked very much like some formal gardens that still exist in Europe today that share that same sort of design. We've had comparative examples.
Lloyd: I must admit, I am a sucker for topiaries.

Steve: It was certainly the thing to do in those days. Versailles has some great documents about the elaborate things they would do with topiary, but Williamsburg was a colony, it was a little more humble and simple. It was very much a different thing in the landscape of the time. Nothing would have looked like that, really, in the New World. It would have been the first formal public English-style garden in the New World.

Lloyd: In the three summers that you were working with the students, what was the hardest part for you and the students to get done?

Steve: It actually was really smooth. It's hot in Williamsburg, and we have our days of heat exhaustion or whatever, but I can't say enough about the students we work with. They've been amazing troopers, not complaining, just going for it. Really the hardest thing is almost seeing these features. They can be so hard to distinguish from the soil around them. It's an internal thing, where you have panic attacks where you're saying, "Is this really something that I'm seeing, or is it not?" Once you excavate that site, it's gone. So if you excavate the wrong thing, you don't get a do-over really.

Lloyd: No take two, huh?

Steve: Exactly, so it's the internal struggle of archaeology that causes me the most sleeplessness.

Lloyd: You said you found some plants 18 feet apart, and that was a standard for the day, so you were pretty sure that this was something. What does a plant hole look like?

Steve: Again, like I was saying, the archaeological site itself has been damaged, and we don't have the original planting holes. So if you think about putting in a little topiary plant, a little yew tree – we think they may have been yews – you know, you have to plant that root ball at least a good two feet deep. The planting holes that we find are only several inches deep, which means that we've lost the upper layers of that; they've been churned up. What we get are circular stains in the soil that are just slightly different. They have more organic material in them, as compared to the surrounding subsoil. Basically we get the bottom of a hole. It's just a stain that looks slightly different.

Lloyd: That's what I've always been curious about, that archaeologists can look at the dirt. All I see is dirt, and they see something that was there. It's just a different color?

Steve: It takes a while. It's a different color, it has slightly different texture to it. You have to know what the natural subsoil looks like, and then compare that to what we know of the archaeological features in this part of the world. It does look different once your eye is accustomed to it.

Lloyd: Do students ever give up and say, "I can't do this?"

Steve: Well, some of them do. Some people just don't have the eye for it, but that's great. There are plenty of other things you can do in archaeology besides the discerning of ephemeral features.

Lloyd: I think I'd do reasonably well with brick and solid things. I don't think I 'd do very well with soil. I don't have an eye.

Steve: That's one of the differences about this project, and that's why it's really exciting. It's the kind of archaeology that's really up-and-coming, really tackling the landscape. There have been a lot of domestic sites excavated, and in that sense, you're really looking for artifacts. You want to know what kinds of housewares these people had. But when you're tackling something like a garden, you're really looking at an architecture that was built out of biological material, rather than bricks and pottery.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *