One Man's Trash: George Washington's Priceless Refuse
A motherload of trash from the George Washington household proves to be an archaeological treasure trove.
For George Washington, the first U.S. President and Revolutionary War hero, a broken chinese porcelain plate or teacup from his dining table or kitchen would go immediately and directly into his trash pit on the grounds just outside his mansion home, buried and forever forgotten. But as the saying goes, "one man's trash is another man's treasure", and well over 200 years later archaeologists would call them priceless artifacts for understanding and reconstructing history. Such was the case when an archaeological team discovered and excavated a trash pit, or "midden", just outside and south of George Washington's imposing Mount Vernon mansion house in northern Virginia.
The South Grove Midden, as it is called, was first excavated from 1990 - 1994 by archaeologists under the employ of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the organization that owns and currently operates the George Washington estate of Mount Vernon, where his restored plantation mansion house functions as its centerpiece for visitors today. What they found was nothing short of spectacular. They uncovered more than 60,000 artifacts representing more than 400 ceramic and glass vessels, hundreds of pounds of brick, mortar and plaster fragments from renovating buildings, buckles, buttons, tobacco pipes, and more than 30,000 animal bones, remains from the meals eaten by the Washington household and their guests.* It was the motherlode of trash middens at Mount Vernon. Since the excavation, the artifacts have been processed, catalogued, items restored or pieced together, and stored and recorded for further study.
View of the excavations at the South Grove site, Mount Vernon. Photo courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies Association.
As any archaeologist at the Mount Vernon estate would tell you, however, the value lies not in the artifacts themselves, as interesting as they may be, but in what they say about Washington, his household, the community of slaves that resided there and the historical context in which Washington lived. The treasure lies in the information. "People of the past, just like us, constructed their identities through outward appearances and practices," says Sophia Farrulla, a student at the College of William and Mary who is interning at Mount Vernon and conducting an examination of the ritual of tea and coffee drinking during George Washington's time. "Everything from clothing to architecture to beverage consumption indicated more than just practicality. Something such as a single shoe buckle or teapot has the potential to tell a rich story about its owner." (Below, right, are some of the artifacts found in the midden: a tooth brush, wig curler, wine bottle seals and denier gauge. Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies Association).
Archaeologists at Mount Vernon are now engaged in a two-year comprehensive analysis, digitization and presentation of the massive trove of curated South Grove artifacts. In addition to the archaeologists, they have engaged students and skilled volunteers to take a deeper look at the artifacts, and more particularly the historical context and what the artifacts mean in terms of the culture and events surrounding Washington. Katie Barca, a graduate student of the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is studying the large number of tobacco pipe fragments recovered from the South Grove Midden. "You may wonder why such a large number of pipe fragments have been recovered from the midden," she says. "Smoking tobacco was ubiquitous, practiced by everyone from young children to grown women and men, explaining the high frequency of pipe fragments. Additionally, clay tobacco pipes were extremely fragile and somewhat inexpensive. When the pipes inevitably broke, their fragments were discarded in refuse piles, like the South Grove Midden." Her work will be a small but important piece of the larger effort to inform our view of culture and society of George Washington's world and to afford additional data for further research. Says Barca, "Data gathered from even the smallest tobacco pipe fragments can contribute to the pursuit of larger research objectives, such as those aiming to establish site chronologies (time periods assigned to the features and artifacts discovered at a location) or examine the movement of goods from England to America."
Mount Vernon archaeologists plan to realize the achievements of the 2-year project by digitally housing it in a unique online database called Archaeological Collections Online, a holistic tool that will be available to both scholars and the public. Eleanor Breen, supervisor of the Archaeological Collections Online project and PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Tennesse, Knoxville, envisions the tool as leading the way and setting a new standard for 'virtual archaeology' in years ahead. "We hope that the Archaeological Collections Online will lead the next generation of virtual archaeology by filling a niche that is not currently available - an anthropologically-informed approach to digitizing collections. What this project seeks to do that others have not is provide content information........provide answers to questions like "what did this punch bowl mean to people who viewed, used and discarded it"? How and what do artifacts tell us about the past, about plantation life, about active consumers, about the Washington households, about the enslaved community?" In this sense, it serves far more than as a database or curated collection of artifacts.
Most significantly, Breen sees it as a way for the public to experience what for the most part has been traditionally the exclusive domain of the scholar or researcher. "Despite the site's [the South Grove Midden's] significance to Mount Vernon, colonial history, and historical archaeology, the collection, like many others here and at other historic places, is rarely seen by anyone except the occasional lucky visitor to the off-site archaeology lab," she says. "The website will be structured so that this rich material record of plantation life will not only be digestible to fellow archaeologists, but also by the public, folks like my mom who has a general (and familial) interest in the stuff of George Washington."
More information about the South Grove Midden and the Archaeological Collections Online project can be obtained by visiting the following websites:
*Mount Vernon's Mystery Midden (Blog)
Information for this article was obtained from Mount Vernon's Mystery Midden Blog, and Mount Vernon's Archaeological Collections Online Project published in the June issue of Popular Archaeology Magazine.
Cover Photo, Top Left: Painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Wikimedia Commons.
Third photo from top courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies Association.