Arsenal of War

A new armoury complex takes shape on the footings of Anderson’s Forge. Archaeologist Meredith Poole talks about the site’s rebuilt narrative.

Learn more: The Armoury project


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. We're outside in Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area today, standing on the spot where until recently Anderson's Forge stood. That building was torn down earlier this spring to make way for a new interpretation of the site that will expand to include the shops that made up the arsenal of the revolution.

We're here with archaeologist Meredith Poole to talk about what has been done and what's still to come. Hey Meredith, thanks for coming out this morning.

Meredith Poole: Hey Harmony, happy to be here.

Harmony: Well, tell me what's happening here on the site of the old blacksmith shop.

Meredith: Well as you said, we had Anderson's Forge standing on this site until about a month and a half ago. Anderson's Forge was rebuilt in the 1980s based on our best interpretation at the time of what it looked like. In the meantime we've captured more documentary evidence that has given us a sense that the Armoury was a much more bustling spot during the period of the Revolution, and that is something that we wanted to interpret.

Anderson had ceased to be an ordinary blacksmith by 1778, and had expanded his responsibilities to include those of blacksmithing, gun stocking, gun repair, tinsmithing. There were a variety of activities that were going on here in relation to the war going on.

Harmony: So the previous forge that was here was not incorrect. You're just showing a different slice of time right now. The time during the Revolution when the blacksmith was going into business as not just a blacksmith, but a full-on armory.

Meredith: He had the government contract to be the armorer for the Virginia Militia. So he was the one who was responsible for supplying all of the troops with the materials they needed. And that included not only the iron materials that they might need, but also things like tin canisters for cartridges for ammunition, things like tin plates, speaking tubes for shouting across the battlefield, camp kettles, he produced hundreds of camp kettles in this shop with the help of his tinsmith.

So there are a variety of activities going on here. We think there was also uniform repair going on. So he really was quite the Renaissance man here, employing lots of different types of artisans to help him with that business.

Harmony: Now, in addition to demolition and reconstruction, you've also got a lot of archeology happening that's giving you some new insights into what happened here and what happened where. Tell me what you're finding and what it's telling you.

Meredith: Well we've started our process using the Frenchman's Map, which is what we often begin with. What it shows is a string of buildings along the west boundary of Anderson's property. One of them is what we are considering the main Armoury building and that was excavated primarily in 1975.

There was also a kitchen out here that predates the Armory. It was built probably around 1750 or 1760 to help serve a tavern that sat along Duke of Gloucester Street. It was James Anderson's home but not actually until he came back to Williamsburg after the war. He lived at the Barraud House prior to that. So we had a tavern in the James Anderson house and the kitchen behind. That same kitchen served the Armory and was probably very important to the forty men who were working here on the Armory property in that it supplied all of their daily food rations and needs. So we're reconstructing the kitchen.

We also know that there are a number of storage buildings and a building that we suspect may have been the tin shop on that line along the western boundary of the property. So we had been looking for evidence of those buildings in the ground recovering that information, and are using it to help interpret where certain activities went on on the site.

Harmony: Well let's take a look at this kitchen. I want to see it.

Meredith: Sure!

Harmony: So we're inside the kitchen now. Meredith, tell me a little bit about the building's dimensions so that people who are listening can understand the size of the building we're talking about.

Meredith: Sure. The building measures about 16x20. And when we found it in the ground when we were looking for it last summer, all that stood in terms of masonry, in terms of brick, was this very massive fireplace that you see at the west end. There was a large vaulted sink drain that came over here in the northwest corner and you can see they are going to put that drain in when they finish re-doing this building.

The lines of the walls had largely disappeared. The brick seems to have been robbed out for use in another location at some point. So what you can see in the ground were trenches that were filled with brick rubble, where they threw it back in. What was interesting about this project from an archaeological standpoint is that because the building had been examined twice before by excavators, all we had left to work with was about an 18 to 24 foot strip that ran through the center of the kitchen that had not been touched archaeologically.

So all of the questions that we had most recently about the kitchen all had to be focused on that very narrow strip of land. What we where primarily interested in where some questions that may seem small and insignificant but I think they've added some very good detail to this building. First we wanted to know what the floor was made of because we had no sense whether there was a wooden floor or a clay floor or what sort of floor had been installed in this building in the 18th century.

And in that 18- inch strip, one of the things we found were patches of clay that didn't match the ordinary subsoil clay around here. So we were able to extract some samples of that clay and have it analyzed. Matt Webster, one of our architectural conservators, analyzed that material, dissolved out the lime based products in it and then separated what remained into it's components, and was able to come up with a formula for the clay floor that would have been in this kitchen in the 18th century.

Harmony: So what looks like a fairly unremarkable dirt floor is actually a painstakingly researched and reconstructed clay floor of a composition . . .

Meredith: Absolutely right.

Harmony: . . that matches what would have been here in the 18th century.

Meredith: Exactly.

Harmony: What other details did you find and go to great pains to make as identical as you could to what was here in the 18th century?

Meredith: I would say the plaster is another good example. We knew from the excavation in 1975 that there had been a large spread of plaster outside of this building. And while it was noted and mapped and drawn in 1975, the technology didn't exist to really analyze what was there. So last summer we found another patch of that plaster, another place where that plaster spread still survived. And we were able to take samples of the plaster.

Using cross section microscopy, were able to take very thin sections of it and look at it in great detail. We had a paint analyst do that for us and some of the conclusions that she came up with had to do with the formula for the plaster. But also she made the observation that the interior of this building was repeatedly whitewashed or lime washed.

Harmony: What does that mean in the context of the kitchen?

Meredith: Well what it means as when you look at it from the standpoint of behavior, what it means is that this kitchen on a very gritty production site, a very industrial type of site, would have been kept scrupulously clean.

Harmony: You've gone to a great deal of trouble to make this as scientifically accurate from a research prospective, but you've also given pretty fair weight to superstitious concerns. There are a couple of thing happening in this building that are kind of archaeological holdovers. Talk to me about the bough and the shoe.

Meredith: I don't know as much about the bough. Apparently that is a carpenters' tradition. I know that there would be, I think it's a good luck sort of thing, and there was a bow placed up in the, I think at the east peak of the roof. There also was a shoe plastered in behind the wall, it's called a concealment shoe and it is something that we occasionally find in buildings. It is a superstition, we don't know exactly what it relates to but because we find it, not infrequently, it was a tradition that our carpenters wanted to maintain.

Harmony: Are you going to reveal the wall where the shoe can be found?

Meredith: Absolutely not, I will have to be bought on that one.

Harmony: On this site, we're going to go from what had been interpreted as Anderson's Forge, a single blacksmith doing blacksmith jobs for the town. The new interpretation that we're going to be bringing as we display this as it was during the Revolution as an Armory is going to show several trades working together in one site. How is that going to change the story that gets told on this site?

Meredith: I think any time that you tell a story where you interweave different lines of work or different lines of evidence, you wind up with a more interesting story. I think that one of the real differences that will be conveyed in this is how much busier this whole property was. When you stir 40 people on to a single lot and you've got them all doing various trades, all of them obviously very busy doing the things they needed to do, you're going to have a lot of commotion here.

And I think you will have a much better sense of the materials needed to furnish the revolution and to furnish troops who are fighting for the Virginia Militia. And I think it will be a much more interesting story for our guests to see the variety of things that were needed in order to accomplish that.

Harmony: Archaeology has answered a lot of questions on this site, but I wonder if it's brought up any mysteries for you?

Meredith: One of our greatest puzzles in looking at this site is where the tinsmith in particular worked. Because he's named in documentation, and when you see how much tin was leaving this site in the form of camp kettles, and speaking tubes, and canisters, and plates, you realize that that was a very large operation. Tin has been described to me as the 18th-century plastic. It was sort of ubiquitous. It was an inexpensive ware and everybody needed it.

So what we've been doing is recovering all of the rolled sheet iron that we can, and looking at it very closely in the conservation lab with the help of x-ray fluorescence that enables us to see the composition of the material. And so far we've turned up about three hundred pieces of tinned iron from right around where that building would have stood. So it's a very strong candidate as the tin shop.

Harmony: Every visitor to Colonial Williamsburg can come out and do what I'm doing right now, and that's see the site and talk with you and other archaeologists. When and where can they come see this process happening?

Meredith: The site, in spite of the fact that it looks very much like a construction site, is still an open site. Archaeologists are currently working next to the Mary Stith shop, which is the next door neighbor to the west of James Anderson. It is behind the building where music programs are currently held.

Harmony: Meredith, thank you so much for taking us through this site this afternoon.

Meredith: Sure.

Leave a Reply

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