Arming the Continent

New information continues to emerge from the excavation of Anderson’s Armoury. The tin shop is found, beginning a new exploration of the trade. Meredith Poole updates.

Learn more: Anderson's Armoury


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. We've been checking in from time to time on the reconstruction of Anderson's Armoury here in Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area. Today brings another update as the armoury reaches another milestone.

Just to recap, James Anderson was the blacksmith in Williamsburg at the start of the American Revolution. As the war heated up, Americans found they needed guns and all kinds of other supplies to fight a war against Britain. James Anderson got the government contract to produce all of those things. He went from a blacksmith's shop to an entire armoury - a cluster of several tradesmen and a kitchen to feed them all together in the same yard, as a sort of revolutionary assembly line.

Back with us today is our favorite armoury correspondent, Meredith Poole, to update us on a discovery that archaeologists have been hoping to make for a long time. Meredith, thank you for being here today.

Meredith Poole: Thank you Harmony, it's good to be here.

Harmony: So you have found something finally that you were hot on the tails of the last time we talked to you - the tinsmith shop.

Meredith: That's exactly right. We knew that there was a tinsmith working for James Anderson, because as you say, he was a blacksmith and producing all sorts of iron objects in support of the war. He was making and primarily maintaining and cleaning and repairing a lot of arms, things like bayonets and muskets. He was repairing and making tomahawks. So the sorts of things that we would think of as military equipment.

He was also manufacturing and repairing vehicles for the war and making things like bits for horses and materials of that nature. But his armoury produced other metal materials as well, primarily tin. In his account books we have lists of the types of tin materials that were leaving the armoury. They were quite extensive. So we knew there was a tinsmith working here. The question was, where were we going to find the location for that activity?

Harmony: So the shop, the tinsmith's shop, existed in the documentary record, but you couldn't find it in the dirt for the longest time. Where are the different spots that you tested to see if you could locate the actual site of the tinsmith's shop?

Meredith: Our base map in general is the Frenchman's Map, which is a map drawn in 1782 by a French cartographer. It shows the layout of the armoury between 1778 and the time the map was drawn in the early 1780s. It shows a long line of buildings along the west property boundary of Anderson's Armoury area. We have looked just south of the main armoury building, the building that's currently being reconstructed.

There's a building shown on that map, and we suspected for the longest time that that was where the tinshop was. We had done some metal testing and found that there was some tinned iron around that building, but more recently we had spent time on a property just to the west, which is a property that we thought fell beyond the boundaries of the armoury. It's actually a property known as the Stith lot, the Mary Stith lot.

We had found instead that the tinsmith for the armoury was located just next door. That said, it's not such a far distance. It's only two feet to the west of the armoury shop. So the buildings are almost contiguous. They sit right next door to one another and basically touch one another along the property line.

Harmony: How did you know it when you found it?

Meredith: It was, this was more a process of accumulating evidence than it was finding a single smoking gun. We have discovered that we were digging, the Stith shop was built in a ravine. So in the 18th century, that land was very low-lying, and became the repository of all sorts of trash from the armoury next door. We, in excavating that ravine between March of 2011 and the middle of October of this current year, we identified a diagonal fence line that seems to have the effect of gathering up that one building, the Stith Shop, and including it with the armoury.

So there's sort of a diagonal drawn across the property that incorporates that building on to the armoury site. But we also found in that ravine an accumulation, a great deal of metalworking material, primarily scrap from copper working. We found a crucible, which is a highly-fired vessel for melting metal.

That crucible contained copper and zinc and lead, which are the components for a type of machinable or engravable brass probably used for gun parts. We also did find scraps and clippings from tinned iron, which was our, that was what we were looking for. We really hoped that we would find evidence of manufacture on the site.

Harmony: And you found enough in that one spot that let you say, "this is ground zero for the tin shop.

Meredith: We did, and if I were to bring in for you the artifacts that we found that represent the tin shop, those sort of triangular clippings that we found, you would be wholly unimpressed by what we had found. Tin was not used as a sort of a straight metal in the 18th century, it's too soft to be manufactured into anything usable in that way.

So what they were producing was tinned iron, which is sheet iron coated with a light coating of tin on either side. So it has the strength of iron, and yet the tin itself keeps it from corroding on either side. So it's much more usable in that form. But when you break something up that's tinned iron, what you'll discover is, it rusts very quickly and turns into something, a very homely-looking artifact is the only way I can describe it. Tinned iron came to the armoury in sheets.

They didn't make the tinned iron there. They were imported to this country and to the armoury in rectangular sheets that were fairly small. Most of the forms that they were producing at the armoury were basic forms, basic cylinders. So what you find are the sort of triangular clippings from the corners as they roll that sheet iron, sheet tinned iron and solder the edges in order to make things like camp kettles, which are essentially paint can forms, speaking trumpets which allow you to speak out over a battlefield situation. There are things like shot cartridges that were produced, but most of them were very cylindrical forms.

Harmony: What's next for the tin shop? You've located it now, will you be reconstructing it?

Meredith: We will be reconstructing it. That was our most exciting recent announcement that we have received a very generous gift funding the reconstruction of the tin shop. So that work will now move forward, which is very exciting for us because it means that we'll be able to show a full complement of activities that were represented on the armoury in one location.

So instead of simply having blacksmithing on that site, visitors will be able to see the process of tinsmithing. They'll be able to see some sorts of leatherworking and bone button making and gun stocking. There will be a number of activities. As for the tin shop itself, our next step, now that we've gotten this most generous gift, is that we need to begin moving or relocating the Mary Stith shop, which was reconstructed on top of those foundations in 1940.

So, beginning right after Christmas, we will begin excavating right inside of the building, which will be a unique situation for us. We will be excavating in a building that still has its heat and its electricity. We simply need to remove the concrete floor. There's a poured concrete floor beneath that. The reason we're doing that is, we aren't certain whether there was any archaeological evidence left on that property in the 1930s when an initial excavation took place. So it's quite possible that there are some subtle but additional clues that we will want to take a look at before we raze that building and begin laying the new foundations.

Harmony: It really makes you think about the layers of history that exist on any one site.

Meredith: That's absolutely true. The one thing that I would say has been most surprising about this excavation is how much information is left. Depending on who you ask, there have been between seven and nine excavations on the armoury property since the 1930s. And you would think surely, after seven to nine excavations, we would have dug up everything there was to dig up.

This most recent excavation just shows that there are pockets of information remaining that are incredibly influential when we look at how we're going to develop a property, and not just physically where the buildings are, but locating the tinsmith as we have has given us a whole new interpretation of an activity that we knew from the documents was present; we simply didn't have evidence of what sorts of materials were being produced.

Harmony: Now that you've been able to stick a pin in the tin shop, what's next as far as overall excavation on the armoury site?

Meredith: We still have a little bit of work to do back at the back of the property and locating the fence lines for the armoury. What has become clear for us, both from documentary evidence and also from some things that we have found recently is that the armoury was likely a very secure property. There were threats to the armoury. There was first of all, lots of materials being stored there. There were thousands of weapons, there was lead being stored there, there were materials that were needed for the war effort.

So that being said, there was certainly the possibility of materials being stolen from the armoury. There was also the threat of enemy attack to some degree or another. So we're learning that it wasn't an open site, the way we tend to think of it as a place that's easily and readily accessible off of Duke of Gloucester Street.

Instead you would have accessed the armoury through Francis Street on the back side and there would have been fairly substantial fences all the way around. We think that it's probably also likely that there was a guard or a sentry placed at the entrance to the armoury to make sure that only the proper people entered and left. So it's very important that we get the fences right, both their nature and their location.

Harmony: It's interesting because I think our main understanding of Williamsburg during the Revolution is as a philosophical center for Revolution. But the armoury allows us to see it as an industrial technological center as well. It's kind of a neat site when you really get to see the mechanics of war and the mechanics of revolution.

Meredith: Absolutely. And it's very surprising to see the scale on which some of this repair and manufacture was happening just one block shy of the capitol. So here you have a city, a capital city that is fairly well-heeled, one would think, and here on a block just short of the capitol you've got a major industrial complex that's being operated as if it existed out in the middle of the hinterlands. So it's interesting to see that in an urban context.

Harmony: Thanks so much for being our guest today.

Meredith: Thanks for having me.


  1. Great podcast on the Anderson Armoury. I’ve read the 2002 archaeology report on the Anderson Blacksmith shop excavations and would like to know if any official archaeological reports will be forth coming from the Armoury excavations?

    I’ve read the majority of the major reports posted on your site over the years and find there have been no major reports posted for 5+yrs.

    The coffee house excavation report would also be of great interest as well.

    I may be contacted at the email address given.


    • Robert, glad you enjoyed this episode. We will forward your request to the archaeology department. Thanks for listening!

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