Mysteries Unearthed at the Armoury


The 2012 summer digging season yielded everything from human and animal burials to sawpits and fencelines. Staff Archaeologist Meredith Poole puts the clues into context.

Learn more: The Armoury Blog


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. It’s a rare thing for the timeless landscape of Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City to change, but change is exactly what’s happening at the corner of Duke of Gloucester and Botetourt Streets at the old blacksmith’s site.

On this ground, a new story is unfolding as archeologists, researchers and historic trades all work together to bring the story of Anderson’s Armoury to life. Our guest today is staff archeologist Meredith Poole, who’s been updating us periodically as this project has taken shape. Meredith, thanks for being back with us today.

Meredith Poole: Thanks Harmony, good to be here.

Harmony: Well it’s been a while since we’ve talked to you. You just wrapped up your summer season of digging and have a whole year’s worth of discoveries and insights from the research happening on that site. Before we get into that, I wonder if we can just recap the Anderson’s Armoury project for people who might not be familiar with it, or might be hearing about it for the first time. What are we doing that’s different on this site from what we were doing before?

Meredith: As you probably know, the Armoury is a facility that was set up during the Revolution in order to maintain weapons which we traditionally think of as guns but also include things like swords and bayonets and tomahawks. And those are materials that have to be readily maintained during the war. James Anderson, who was a local blacksmith, receives the government contract to be the public armorer which was not a job that required a lot of work on his part before the war began, but as the war heats up the requirements of James Anderson and just in terms of volume of material, but the numbers of weapons coming in and also the variety of work that he was asked to do in terms of supplying the soldiers materials for their kits, tin ware, things like repairing gun carriages -- there were all sorts of things that were added to his scope of work.

So both the volume and the variety of his tasks and his responsibilities as public armorer are very different from his responsibilities as a civilian blacksmith. So you see him moving onto a different lot and expanding his operation all together to include these various trades. So in the past we’ve shown him as a civilian blacksmith and his operation is fairly small. What we’re doing now is, we’re shifting the focus just a little bit into a different period of time to show the full establishment of that property during the heat of the Revolution between 1778 and 1780.

Harmony: So when Anderson makes the jump from being a small local blacksmith to running this armoury we see on his site not just a blacksmith’s shop, but a whole complex of trades that would have been interrelated as they work to create and repair some of these armaments that you mentioned.

Meredith: Absolutely. Things like tinsmithing, as I said, there’s going to be some leather work going on, possibly some canvas work. We know that there’s uniform repair that’s happening on the site so all of those would fall beyond the scope of his expertise. We know that its fullest there were at least 40 people working on the site, so it’s a great difference from the six employees or so that he had prior to the Revolution.

Harmony: It’s always amazing to me to learn what kinds of things that you are discovering from the record that’s left in the ground. It’s like a magic trick. Talking about a few of the things that you guys have uncovered in your research of this site. One of the things that sounds pretty mundane and not that big of a deal is a fence line. Talk to me about what you’ve discovered about the fence line and what the sort of importance of a fence would have been around this kind of complex. It’s more than decorative.

Meredith: The fence line is something that we had record of from a documentary perspective. If you look at the Frenchmen’s Map of 1782, the Revolutionary War period map, it includes the armoury property and shows a fence in plan view running from the back corner of the armoury straight back to Francis Street. So in some ways, we knew the location of the fence. That wasn’t so very important.

What’s important is that if you’re going to reconstruct that fence with any degree of accuracy you need to know something about the character of it. So we might want to know, for example, we did want to know how sturdy a fence that was, how substantial a fence. And that would be the sort of thing that we could get from finding the molds of the posts that sat in the holes dug for that fence line and looking to see the size of the fence posts and how deeply they were buried. That gives us a sense of how substantial this fence might be. So that is one element of reconstructing the accuracy.

We also wanted to know things like, “How far apart were all the fence posts seated?” Both of those are aimed towards an accurate reconstruction, but we also know that a fence line is a boundary and represents the margin of a property. So one of the things that we were very curious about when we started to look at the area along the west fence line at the armoury is what sorts of activities were relegated to the margins of the site. What sorts of things were going on? When you think about 40 workmen all employed on a lot that’s no larger than half an acre, that’s going to be a very compact site with lots of activity. We know from documentary records going on and how far did they spread out to the edges of the property. We can find evidence of all sorts of activities along that fence line.

Harmony: One of the things that you came across in 2012 was human remains. Was that a surprise that you would discover skeletal remains on the site?

Meredith: We actually found two human burials and they were found in 2010. We have simply kept it quiet for a good long time and that’s to give us some space to give proper respect and removal to those remains prior to the armoury’s reconstruction. Just as an aside, we probably wouldn’t remove human remains if there were not construction going on on the site, but because they were located so close to where buildings are going to be reconstructed they really had to be removed to a safer spot.

These two people, the first thing you know about them is that they were buried prior to the armoury’s development, because they were found underneath a building that was part of the armoury’s construction. So we know that they are not armoury workers. They were not present during the use and production period of the armoury. They are buried, interestingly, they are buried north-south right along the fence line. We found them in our look at the fence line, our first look at the fence line. Burials are not typically north-south. It is traditional to bury people east-west and so what that tells us first off, is that they were not terribly well regarded as individuals and they were probably being pushed to the side of the property simply to get them out of the way.

We have had done a great deal of analysis of of the human remains that we found and unfortunately their condition makes it difficult to say anything definitive. Dr. Michael Blakey at the College, who was responsible for the analysis of the African burial ground burials in New York, took a look at what we had and was able to say with a certain degree of certainty that they seem to be a male and a female. Our suspicion is that they are probably enslaved individuals. We don’t know that from what he was able to tell us, because unfortunately the conditions of the remains left some real question as to the actual markers that you look for to try to determine what we call population affiliation and is more traditionally called race. Many of those markers were missing just because of the conditions of the skulls.

One of the things that’s also important in our identification of these people is that they show on their long bones evidence of very hard labor. The muscle attachments in their arms and legs are very pronounced and what that means is that a very heavy and strong muscle was attached in that location and that’s also circumstantial evidence that suggests that they probably were enslaved and had to do quite hard labor during their lives.

Harmony: One of the other types of burials you found that was kind of a surprise was dog burials, and quite a number of them.

Meredith: We are not accustomed to finding dog burials from 18th century contexts. Generally when we encounter dog remains and certainly cat remains in the 18th century they’re discarded with the trash. They are not typically given a burial. But what we found at the armoury was that there were seven dog burials, what we assume to be seven at this point looking at what we have. Four of them were in deliberately dug graves, three of them were together in a pit. So that is an extraordinary number of pet burials, dog burials, I don’t want to call them pets, but dog burials all in one location.

Harmony: What sorts of hypotheses are you working with right now to explain the presence of so many dogs on that site?

Meredith: We have a zoarcheologist, Joanne Bowen, her job is to look at all sorts of animal remains that come from the site and she’s hoping to learn more over the winter about the conditions of these dogs, whether there is evidence of any sort of trauma to them that might give us some clues as to exactly the answer to your question to what happened to these dogs.

We know that some of them were, I think one of them was old. A couple of them were mature, but were not yet in the category that we would call old that involves having the teeth worn down and evidence of arthritis on the bones. So some are mature and some are quite young so there’s no real pattern that they seem to follow. Some are bigger than others, but are not remarkable in that way in any regard.

Harmony: One of the major discoveries that came out of this summer’s dig that actually probably brought you more information than it brought you mystery was the discovery of the saw pit. Why is this such an important discovery?

Meredith: We had an excavation near this location in 2000, and as the archeologist in charge started moving towards I guess what would have been the western boundary of the site, she identified what seemed to be a straight drop off. Because of what we know about the topography of the armoury lot she interpreted that as the edge of the ravine that we know runs through the site from north to south.

We weren’t entirely sure that was a good explanation for what was seen, and so we expanded in that area this year and found that not only did it drop off it dropped off very precipitously. We opened up around that area and have now found a straight-sided pit, flat bottom, sort of slopping but straight sides, absolutely I guess it would be rectangular, given what we have uncovered so far, measures 7 feet by 12 feet and is about 4 feet deep, so it’s a sizeable hole. We only have about half of it from what we can tell so far. We’re going to have to go and excavate the rest of it.

What it appears to us to be is a sawpit, which is a pit that is used by carpenters. You put a sawyer in the bottom. You put a sawyer on top on some sort of a scaffold. Put a pit saw between them and the configuration of this pit allows them to saw very large pieces of wood into plank. Our interpretation at this point is that it may be a feature that’s related to constructing the armoury buildings in 1778, so it would be armoury related.

Dating of a feature like this, trying to figure out when it was constructed, is based on what we find at the bottom and the dates of the soil layers that fill it. There seems to be a little bit of filling early on in the 1760s or so and then again there’s a great dumping of armoury trash: things like clinker and iron products. That tells us that it was opened briefly and during use and then quickly fell into disuse as the armoury construction ceases and they start to fill in this large hole using the, I’m sure, tons of garbage that are being produced at the armoury.

Harmony: So what’s next for the armoury?

Meredith: Next year our intention was that this was going to be our final year, our final season at the armoury. We’ve now looked at the tin shop, we’ve looked at the back portion of the lot, we’ve covered just about all aspects of the armoury and our hope was that this fall we would complete the project and leave it to reconstruction.

It now looks because we’ve only uncovered half of this feature that we’re calling a saw pit we have intentions of going back next summer to simply complete the excavation of that one feature so that we can answer our last remaining questions. What will make that a little bit tricky is that by next summer there will be work going on in reconstructing the buildings we found so far along that western fence line so we will be sharing a very tight bit of real estate with the carpenters as we continue to dig and they proceed with rebuilding what we found so far. It will feel a lot, I would imagine, like what it felt like to work on the armoury in 1778 with everybody working on top of one another.

Harmony: Podcasts are not the only way that you can keep up with the progress at the armoury. You guys also keep a wonderful rich blog which can be found at and that’s armoury spelled a-r-m-o-u-r-y so we want to encourage everybody to stop by and visit that blog and see what’s new and see some images from the site as well. Meredith, thank you for being here today.

Meredith: Thank you Harmony.