Reading Ravenscroft


Archaeologists turn their trowels on Ravenscroft for its third summer of excavation. Meredith Poole shares an update.

Learn more: Ravenscroft


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Joining us again today is Meredith Poole, Staff Archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg.

Meredith, you were with us last in 2007, when you were excavating the Ravenscroft site, which is an excavation that I understand has been ongoing since 2006. There are a lot of layers to this exploration of the site.

Meredith Poole: Between 2006 and the end of last summer, 2008, we focused our attention on a single cellar, which was a 14x16 foot cellar that was of unknown function. We came away knowing when the building was built: we believe it was built around 1730. I think last time I was here we thought it was 1720s, so we’ve pushed the date forward just a little bit.

We think, at this point, we’re still not certain of its function. We think it may possibly have been a bake house, a building that was used for the commercial baking of bread, but that is still a question that’s unanswered.

So, one of the things we tried to this summer, as we finished that excavation, we needed to move to a different part of the site, and we thought we would test to see how far the site went, and see if we could find, along the eastern boundary, a part of the site that had not been looked at by previous archaeologists.

So that is where we are this summer. We have been trying to find a kitchen, also shown on the Frenchman’s map, that we know was not found by earlier archeologists in 1954.

Harmony: Complementing your excavation is the Frenchman’s map, which is a historical document that we know shows a sort of sketched layout of Williamsburg in the 18th-century period. What do you see on that map that gives you a hint about what you’re looking for in the ground?

Meredith: Ok, that’s a good question. Without the Frenchman’s map, we would not have the 18th-century locations of three buildings that are depicted on what we consider the Ravenscroft site.

So what we see when we look at it, and it may be a little hard to visualize, but as you move north up Botetourt Street, spanning what we now know is the street, is a very large building depicted on the Frenchman’s map. A very large, probably the house for the property. Behind that building, there is a smaller building that we think is a kitchen. And then far off on the lefthand side, or on the western side of the property, you see a very small cellar, which is the building that we have been excavating for the last three summers.

What was enticing about what we think is the kitchen that was behind the Ravenscroft house, is that it had not been found previously by archaeologists. What’s interesting about the house itself, the building that spans Botetourt Street, is that, while we think it was probably built around 1730s-ish, or at least that was the assessment of earlier archaeologists, it stood until 1896, when it was burned in a fire. So the building was almost 160 years old at that point. That was the reason there was no Botetourt Street, because there was a house that stood in the middle of what we would now consider that route.

Harmony: So each summer, since 2006, you’ve had a focus of excavation. What are you focusing on this summer?

Meredith: Well we hope to find, as I said, an untouched portion of the site, by which to measure what we had already looked at. It’s sort of like, if you had walked on to a crime scene and still had all the evidence, but somebody had put it in a bag and shaken it up – that’s what we were left to deal with last summer.

Because we had the artifacts, we had the building foundation that we were looking at, but we didn’t have any context for anything. Because the material had been removed from the cellar in the 1950s as architects were looking for buildings to reconstruct.

Harmony: Tell me more about the 1950s excavation. Were the practices so much different 50 years ago?

Meredith: The goals were different 50 years ago. It’s not that the practices were different. These were not archaeologists, even though I’ve called them archaeologists previously in the interview, it’s an easy way to lump them. Really what they were were individuals under the direction of the architecture department. Their goal was simply to find buildings to reconstruct. Given that very narrow focus, what they did was simply to dig trenches through the site in order to encounter continuous brick foundation, or brick foundation of any sort.

So they would dig trenches every five feet and uncover any buildings that they encountered in that way, but they were not interested in any of the artifacts or the materials that came from the site. Once they had found the buildings, a determination was made about whether those were 18th or 19th century buildings, or even 17th-century buildings in some cases. Then a decision was made as to whether those were going to be rebuilt.

We have completely different questions. We know, thanks to them, where most of those buildings lay. But we’re more interested in the people who lived in them and how they lived in them.

So our methods are different in that we open broad areas around any architectural evidence, or no architectural evidence at all. Sometimes we open parts of a site that don’t have any structural evidence in the middle of them whatsoever. What we’re looking for are things like soil layers that people have deposited their trash into over time, buildup of the soil layers.

We’re looking for trash pits that are more concentrated deposits of people’s kitchen and household materials. We’re looking for pathways, we’re looking for post holes that mark where less substantial buildings or even fence lines stood. All of those are the focus of our excavations today.

Harmony: So you might not be looking for physical artifacts like broken glass or pipe stems -- or maybe you are equally looking for those type of physical artifacts -- as well as the imprint of the buildings that stood there: the postholes, the soil level.

Meredith: That’s absolutely right. Archaeological evidence for historical archaeology consists of basically three categories of information.

There’s the soil itself, which is both the soil layers and also stains that enable us to see where people have done things in the past – dug holes, deposited trash. There are stains in the ground that show up. So we are looking for both soil layers and soil stains.

Second category would be the artifacts that come out of the ground and out of those soil layers that we use to flesh out what happened during each of those chapters in the site’s history.

The third category would be the historical documentation that we can match up with those other two categories and create a more coherent story.

Harmony: So what kind of questions have you been able to answer this summer with your exploration of this corner of the site?

Meredith: So far, we’re still only about six weeks in to our project, which is not a tremendous amount of time. We have nailed down, more or less, where the 18th century property line lay for the Ravenscroft site, and we know that because we have crossed that boundary, not because we’ve actually found it. So we do know that.

We know that we are now uncovering a kitchen that was uncovered on the Davenport site in 1954 as well – there was a lot of work going on in 1954. So we have re-exposed a second kitchen.

Another very interesting chapter of the site that we are starting to open now is the 20th-century history of that entire block, or that entire neighborhood. During the early 20th century, the sort of north end of town, particularly the northeast end of town, seemed to be the home of many of the, much of the African American community in Williamsburg at the time.

Harmony: So you mentioned talking to guests – this excavation is something that plays out before the public that you want to share with visitors to Colonial Williamsburg. Where is the site, how can people find it?

Meredith: The site is at the corner of Nicholson and Botetourt Streets, on the northeast corner of those two streets, and is open between 9 and 12 and 1 and 4 on weekdays. We are really trying to, I think when people walk through Colonial Williamsburg, it seems apparent that the town is finished and that the research is done. Neither of those is true, there is always more to be found.

We would estimate, based on our calculations, that there’s about 85 percent of the Historic Area left to explore. The 15 percent that is there is essentially the architecture, the armature for the Historic Area. What we have left to explore are all the spaces behind that will help to fill out how life went on, not only in the 18th century, but all the way up to the 20th century and to the modern day, to where we are today.

Harmony: Meredith, thanks for being with us today. Look forward to seeing you on the site.

Meredith: Thank you.

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