Old School Home Brew

The Historic Campus of the College of William and Mary had one more secret to tell, and it was a big one. Archaeologist Andy Edwards describes the surprise, and the clues that lead them to hope they’ve stumbled upon the College’s early brewhouse.

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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Well, beer and college go hand and hand, and recent archeology at the College of William & Mary is coming close to tracing that connection all the way back to one of the country's very oldest colleges. Our guest today is Andy Edwards, who joins us to share the details of a surprising campus discovery. Andy, thank you for being here today.
Andy Edwards: Well thank you for asking me.
Harmony: And you’re a staff archeologist here at Colonial Williamsburg.
Andy: That’s correct.
Harmony: We’re talking about archeology at the Wren Building. Before we talk about specifically what you found, how can we describe the Wren Building for listeners so that they know how to understand this building in the historical context of the College and of the country?
Andy: The Wren Building is the oldest continually used classroom building or college building in the country. It’s the second oldest college, which was William & Mary, founded in 1693. The original Wren Building was built between 1695 and 1698. Much of that building survived, although there was a terrific fire in 1705 that virtually leveled the building.
It was rebuilt, and this would be important to our story, in the 17-teens and survived that until pretty much intact until 1859 when it burned again. It was rebuilt and then re-burned the next decade. It survived then until the 1930s, when it was restored by Colonial Williamsburg in 1930 -'31 and that’s the building you see today. A large portion of that building is original, but a lot is also reproduction.
Harmony: There has been a lot of archeology in the Wren yard through the historic campus and around the Wren Building. What prompted the dig that we’re talking about today, the one that uncovered what you think might have been the campus' early brewery?
Andy: Well it goes back to 2011, which isn’t too far, but there are walkways that run on either side of the Wren Building that dated to the 1930s or '40s. The College wished to widen one of those walkways, the one next to the chapel or on the side of the building, the south side in 2011. They asked the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research, which is the cultural resource management arm of the College, to investigate the area first to make sure that the widening of the sidewalk wouldn’t interfere with any archeological features that were hitherto unknown.
Well they did find something. They found a brick foundation, which looked to be 18th century. They traced out a bit of that foundation at that time and found a building that was approximately 20x18 feet. Since much of it ran under the existing walkway and they were unable to pursue it at the time because of time and financial constraints, they decided just to record what was there, the building, and asked the College not to widen the sidewalk at that time.
Well, three years later Louise Kale, who is the former executive director of the historic campus, asked Colonial Williamsburg archeology to pick up on the investigation to investigate the building, also any other features that might be disturbed by the widening of the sidewalk. That was in the spring of this year. Colonial Williamsburg has a long history of doing archeology on the historic campus. Since the 1930s we’ve done a lot of work there.
Harmony: How did we miss this before? I’m thinking about the beginning of the Restoration. I remember reading stories about how at that time they did cross trenching of large just diagonal trenches across large areas just to see if anything was under there. And through the years, there’s been a lot of exploration around Wren yard and the Wren Building. How did we miss a brick foundation up until this point?
Andy: We wondered that, ourselves. There was some trenching in that area. ¬†At that particular time back in the early '30s, most of the trenching was north/south and east/west before they realized that trenching in diagonals of lots that are laid out in north/south/east directions is much more efficient in finding brick foundations. We’re very lucky actually. Part of it was put under a walkway and it wasn’t any closer to the Wren Building. It’s about 40 feet I guess from the Wren Building. A lot of heating and air conditioning work was done there in the 1990s to upgrade the building, and that would have impacted the foundations. I think we’re just lucky that it wasn’t found. There are a lot of features found around that area. There’s a brick kiln that dates to the 18th century just a stone's throw away so just serendipity.
Harmony: It’s neat to think that even after all these years there’s still a few secrets around waiting to be told. So you found a brick foundation, and your best guess now is that this might have been a brewery. Tell me what clues you have about that function and why that might have been a part of the College’s operation.
Andy: Well in a way it’s a process of elimination, and there’s historical references to a brew house. Originally, we know from early records, [Nathaniel] Beverly wrote in 1722 in the "Present History and Present State of Virginia" that the Wren Building originally was built with a kitchen, bake house and brew house under the great hall in 1695. The building burned in 1705 and those functions were moved outside, we find from the College notes. We don’t know exactly where, but we don’t know either whether the brew house, bake house and kitchen were three separate structures or as they were under the great hall just one. So that’s one reference, so we know there was a brew house.
It was always a brew house and beer was just, it was food at the time. Harvard had a brew house; practically all universities and institutions have brew houses because that’s what you served with dinner. Beer was probably safer in some ways than drinking water for two reasons. One thing, you had to boil the water to make the beer and that killed significant bacteria. And, in the brewing process itself, the fermenting process kills bacteria as well. So it was the safer thing to drink and it was nutritious. A lot of it was likely small beer, which was less alcoholic than the regular beer or the beer that you see today.
When we started excavating, we weren’t sure exactly what we had. We found that there was an addition to the building on the south side. The building is 20 feet east-west, 18 feet north-south and on the south side there’s a smaller 8x18 foot lean to or addition was added to the building at some later date, but in the 18th century.
When we finally got down past the 20th century disturbances and other debris. There’s been a lot of landscaping in this area over the last 100 years. We found a layer of what we call destruction rubble. It's rubble and bits and pieces that are left from the building when it collapsed or was destroyed. We don’t know what that process was; whether it was torn down on purpose or it fell down or exactly why.
But we found in the approximate middle of the main part of the building at what appeared to be a chimney fall, because the bricks had fallen in such a way that the coursing was still evident. You could see that it was English bonded and we felt that, “Oh, this is a chimney fall, this is cool, this is probably a kitchen, and with a quarter on the side." We were very excited, because a kitchen quarter would mean a lot of things and would be very interesting for the College.
Well, we removed the rubble and there was no chimney base. Aha! Well, let’s see, that rules out the kitchen because you need a fireplace. There were no other fireplaces in the building. It rules out a bake house, because of the same reason -- you need a fireplace. And it also rules out a residence or a quarter. Again, you need heat.
What we did find was a pit, a round pit that cut through an earlier square pit full of ash. In the bottom of that pit were bricks that had been burned. They were sort of placed in a circular manner and then what looked like there was some burning on top of them. The pit contained creamware, which is a Wedgewood production ceramic that we know didn’t exist before 1762. This was also found in the destruction rubble, so we know that the building was destroyed or went down or went out of use after 1762, probably several years after that date.
So what else could this be? Well, we’ve got some options, and brew house and laundry are two of those. Frankly, laundries are not near as exciting as brew houses for obvious reasons, so we set out to try to figure out what the building was.
A lot is going to hinge upon the environmental sampling, botanical samples that we’ve taken from the pit and from some internal ditches that were found inside the building foundation and from the floors of the building itself. So those samples are being prepared. They’re pollen samples. We’re lucky that hops, which is a constituent of beer this far north creates a lot of pollen. It’s very fragile, but if it creates enough pollen maybe some survived archeologically.
We do know actually from the historical records that, from the bursars records at the College which we have the originals, that in the 1750s on December the 19th, precisely, one of the times that the College was buying hops from the quarter and plantation that that College owned on the south side of the James. So it says, “Purchased from the Nottaway Negroes,” which means the slaves that the College owned on the south side of the river, they purchased hops. So there was a brewery going on at that time. What we’d like to do is figure out whether this building is that brewery. We’re hoping the pollen will help us.
Harmony: So have you uncovered everything in the ground that you can and now it’s all moving to the lab, it’s all moving to under the microscope?
Andy: That is correct. The site now is back under a brick walkway so, they acted fast. Everything is up to analysis and more historical research and looking into other archeology of other brew houses if we can find those. They're kind of rare. We’ve been looking and trying to see if what we found looks similar to what was found there.
Harmony: So when do you hope to have this story resolved? When do you think you’ll learn more about what that sample might tell you?
Andy: Well, we’re preparing the samples to be sent away now and we’ve identified a pollenologist, who is a person who looks at pollen. We also identified someone to do the seed analysis. We just need to send it off and have that analysis done. I hope that by the first part of next year we’ll learn something.
Harmony: Well we’ll be looking forward to see what analysis reveals about what exactly we’ve uncovered here, but it sounds like there’s a lot more interesting history to be learned from this feature so best of luck to you and we’ll just be waiting on the edge of our seats to hear what you found.
Andy: I am too.
Harmony: Thank you for coming by today Andy.
Andy: Ok, thank you, enjoyed it.

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