Mount Vernon’s team of professional archaeologists help tell the story of enslavement and plantation life at George Washington’s home.

Below the Archaeology Team has answered some frequently asked questions.

When and where can I see archaeologists at Mount Vernon?

Mount Vernon archaeologist answering visitors' questionsOur team of archaeologists conducts a variety of excavations across the Mount Vernon estate throughout the year. These may be long-term research projects such as the African American Cemetery project or they may be excavations in advance of construction and infrastructure upgrades to preserve Mount Vernon for generations to come.

In 2019, Mondays-Thursdays (weather depending), we will be finishing up intensive excavations in the South Grove, followed by an archaeological survey of the East Lawn in advance of the stabilization and restoration of the ha-ha wall. We will be in the African American cemetery on Fridays, May-October (weather depending).

What are archaeologists looking for?

It depends! We develop a research design for each project with specific archaeological and historical questions in mind. We take into consideration historic sources, documents, and maps as well as previous archaeology. During the course of excavation new discoveries often prompt us to change or add new questions. Our archaeologists are always happy to answer questions at our excavation sites!

How do you find artifacts?

We have multiple techniques for recovering artifacts but the most common is to sift excavated soils through ¼ inch wire mesh. Soil passes through the screen and artifacts are collected, placed in bags labeled by depositional context and location, and transported to our onsite archaeological laboratory where they are cleaned, identified, individually labeled, and curated to professional standards. We enter all of this information into an extensive archaeological database for analysis.

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How much of the estate has been excavated?

South Grove excavation site

South Grove excavation site

Preservation and Restoration efforts at Mount Vernon in the 1930s and 1950s included limited archaeological excavation of parts of Mount Vernon’s historic core. In the 1980s an estate-wide archaeological survey was completed that prompted the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to create an in-house archaeology department in 1987. Despite generational campaigns of strategic archaeological projects, we have still only excavated a small percentage of Mount Vernon’s home farm and we continue to make new discoveries in previously excavated areas.

Why do archaeology at Mount Vernon?

We can and do learn a great deal from historical sources such as letters, account books, diaries, and maps. But what about those who didn’t leave these types of documents for future historians, such as the enslaved, hired craftspeople, and the majority of colonial women? And even for those that did leave a written legacy, like George Washington, what about the everyday occurrences that weren’t deemed particularly noteworthy?

When was the last time you wrote about brushing your teeth or what you ate for lunch? All of these folks left behind traces of their daily lives – in the objects they used and discarded and in the ways they modified and shaped the landscape of Mount Vernon. Archaeology is our single best source of recovering information about the daily lives of those that called Mount Vernon home. 

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Who does the digging?

Part of Mount Vernon's Archaeology Team in the Mansion Cellar

Part of Mount Vernon's Archaeology Team in the Mansion Cellar

Mount Vernon maintains a full-time staff of six professional archaeologists, each with advanced degrees (M.A. & Ph.D.) and decades of collective experience excavating sites across the globe. We also work with students, volunteers, and interns in our archaeological laboratory and on certain archaeological field projects.

What tools do you use?

The archaeologist’s toolkit ranges from high-tech devices such as ground penetrating radar, satellite photography, GPS, and laser equipped surveying and measuring equipment to the tried and true hallmarks of our craft – shovels, wheelbarrows, sifting screens, and our most useful excavation tool of all: a common masonry trowel.

Are you still finding artifacts?

We find artifacts from every era of human activity at Mount Vernon, dating at least as far back as 6,000 years right up to the present. Even with the network of modern infrastructure improvements, including underground utilities crisscrossing the historic estate, we recover artifacts from many periods of occupation in most of our excavations. We also routinely find non-portable artifacts such as building foundations and supports, cellars, wells, fence lines and brick walls, pathways, gardens, and other human modifications to Mount Vernon’s landscape.

When do you stop digging?

Distinct layers are visible from where Bushrod Washington’s dairy once stood in the South Grove.

Distinct layers are visible from where Bushrod Washington’s dairy once stood in the South Grove.

Archaeologists read soil layers the way historians read pages of a book. We’re trained to read subtle differences in soil textures and colors to interpret past human activities. Picture a layer cake with different levels of cake and icing. Like the layers of a birthday cake, each soil level represents a different human activity or time period. As we dig deeper, we go further back in time.

Eventually, we reach a dense layer of clay called subsoil with no artifacts or evidence of human activity. We stop our excavations when we encounter subsoil. That might be anywhere from a few inches to dozens of feet below the surface (down a well shaft for example) depending on what we are excavating.

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Forgotten No Longer

Since 2014, Mount Vernon has conducted an archaeological survey of the African American cemetery on the estate.

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