Esther White, Director of Historic Preservation at Mount Vernon explains how archeology efforts by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association have helped guide garden interpretation at Mount Vernon.

Investigating the Past

The archaeological excavation in the Upper Garden illustrates how landscapes like George Washington's at Mount Vernon are fluid and constantly evolving.  We were able to identify seven distinct phases of gardens within the boundaries of the Upper Garden.  Each of these is equally the Upper Garden, and each is authentic in its own way.  The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association depicts the plantation as it was in 1799, so we have decided to restore the layout and appearance of the space based upon the garden we believe was present during that year.  The fact that we can see where young trees were nurtured in the 1760s and vegetable beds from the 1770s is phenomenal -- and I wish there were some way to make these gardens present too.

Digging for Clues

Vaughan Plan

Washington's plantation is incredibly well documented-- and the archaeological excavation reminds us that text is not the only form of evidence that informs about the past.  The archaeological remains of the successive gardens which were promulgated in the Upper Garden are a form of evidence which we have to evaluate in a similar manner to how we weigh and think about textual evidence.  Additionally, the archaeological excavation also recovered artifacts, which helped date the layers of soil so we could tell what year different gardens were formed, pollen and phytolith (phytoliths are silica crystals left behind by plants, these can be identified to the species level -- similar to pollen grains) remains which indicate the environment and which plants were being grown in the garden.  Our understanding of the evolution of the garden is also informed by the visitors' accounts which discuss the intricacies of the space and provide a colorful view of the Upper Garden through time.

Dendrochronology and Computerized Mapping

LIDAR of the Mount Vernon landscape

As a historical archaeologist I think Mount Vernon's use of science and technology helps us have a much better understanding of authenticity.  Techniques such as dendrochronology (tree ring dating) pollen and phytolith studies and GIS (computerized mapping) have been incredibly successful methods to help us tease apart myth from reality.  I also think our ability to critically evaluate our text and photographic evidence has become more astute which has helped us better understand the changes which have occurred at the historic site.

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