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An archaeological discovery at the blacksmith shop sheds light on those who shaped Mount Vernon.

Excavated during archaeological investigations of the blacksmith shop on the north lane, this iron chisel dates to the second half of the 18th century.

Planters like Washington often imported such hand tools from England, though corrosion and wear obscure any markings on our example that might provide clues to its origin of manufacture. A wooden handle would have been attached to the spike, or shank, seen on one end of the recovered piece. As with modern equivalents, a craftsman would strike the handle end with a hammer to shape the joinery of wooden framed buildings, carts, boats, and fencing.

Items like this chisel were key parts of the carpenter’s toolkit and would have needed constant maintenance and repair as a result. It is likely this cycle of use and repair resulted in the chisel being deposited with items from the blacksmith shop.

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Did You Know?

Through research into the documentary record, we know Washington and his estate managers placed several orders for various kinds of chisels through his London-based purchasing agents over the course of his ownership of the estate. In the 18th century, British manufacturers issued catalogue books which illustrated the variety of forms and sizes of chisels available for purchase. Only the blade portion of these tools were shipped to buyers. Craftsmen would fashion their own individual wooden handles for the tools themselves.

Who Used It?

Mount Vernon’s archaeologists use artifacts, such as this chisel, to learn more about both the history of the estate and the lives of the community of individuals who were responsible for its creation and have overseen its evolution over the last three centuries.

While definitively associating an archaeologically recovered object with a historic person is difficult, one cannot help but speculate as to who might have used it.

In the case of this chisel, the most likely answer is one of the enslaved carpenters whose labor built much of the plantation. Sambo Anderson led a crew of four or five other enslaved carpenters throughout the late 18th century, a time when George Washington was radically reshaping the design of the Mansion and the landscape of the surrounding estate. Craftsmen, both free and enslaved often working together, provided the skilled labor necessary to bring about Washington’s plan. Anderson and his crew would also have maintained the various outbuildings, storehouses, overseers’ houses, quarters for enslaved workers, and livestock buildings that were essential to the operation of Mount Vernon as an agricultural enterprise.

(MVLA)