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Excavation

Thirty shovel test pits, excavated throughout the field, revealed a simple stratigraphy (plowzone / subsoil) and few artifacts in this agricultural area. Based upon these results and the size of the field where we felt archaeological remains could be numerous but also spatially dispersed, we decided to mechanically strip the plowzone in numerous large areas across the field. These stripped areas were trowelled by hand, providing excellent visibility of features intruding the clay subsoil.

A total of 21 units were excavated revealing evidence of the orchard plantings, fencelines and ditches. Soil samples were tested from post holes / molds and two possible planting holes in hopes of identifying plant remains – seeds, pollen, or phytoliths. Unfortunately, the state of preservation for pollen at this site was very poor, and therefore very few pollen grains were identified. No seeds or phytoliths were recovered.

The excavation did uncover many structural remains. Documentary sources record that a fence was constructed in 1790 around the field and postholes for this feature were discovered at 10-foot intervals.  At the Fruit Garden and Nursery, Washington used both wooden fences and “live fences” – closely planted hedges with a ditch and bank, to form the boundary to this space. A ditch discovered along the eastern edge of the field might be part of one of these live fences.  Washington specified a live fence was to “form one side of the fence to the Vineyard Inclosure.”

Two additional ditches were uncovered. One ditch ran from the Paddock Road located north of the field, bisecting the space north - south. This might be the “old ditch and bank which splits this inclosure in two” which Washington wanted “levelled” in 1792. The artifacts found in this ditch suggest it could be this older ditch. Another ran perpendicular between these two, east - west, dividing the northeast quadrant of the field. An additional fence was discovered 80 feet south of and parallel to this ditch, creating smaller spaces in the eastern half of the field.

Several features were revealed that were not associated with the field’s use as a vineyard or fruit garden and nursery, but are important archaeological discoveries. Two rectangular features uncovered in the northeast corner of the field contained a variety of domestic artifacts from the first half of the 19th century. Their size (3 x 4 feet) and rectangular shape suggest they might be sub-floor pits associated with 19th-century slave quarters. The presence of these features within this field hints at Mount Vernon’s 19th-century history – a time we know very little about.

South of these features, a large, irregular patch of subsoil (9 x 14 feet) exhibits the effects of super-heating by direct contact with fire, including reddening and scorching. Large quantities of burned material and numerous under and over-fired brick fragments were recovered. These appear to be “wasters” from firing bricks, prior to the field’s agricultural use. A nearby hole might be the borrow pit, where clay was dug for the bricks. It was common in 18th-century Virginia to make and fire bricks close to where they would be used.

A prehistoric feature, consisting of oyster shells, quartzite and rhyolite flakes, and fire cracked rock, was found as well. We know that prior to the Washington occupation, Native Americans lived here seasonally, hunting, fishing, and feasting on oysters.

Although the archaeological excavations revealed many intriguing features which helped us understand the spatial layout of the field, nothing remained of the field’s original use as a vineyard or the nursery beds, known to have been included in the later formal fruit garden incarnation. Today, the space is reconstructed, based on the historical documentation and the archaeological excavation. It serves as an important spot in understanding Mount Vernon as a working farm where George Washington experimented with agricultural techniques and crops.