Digging in the Yard

Unearthing new history in the shadow of the U.S.'s oldest college building in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Williamsburg, Virginia, November, 2014—Looking over this quiet yard today, one would never suspect that, only a few months before, a major archaeological excavation was taking place in this place. Only the areas where grass is absent betray the recent activity. Excavated areas were re-filled and smoothed over after digging was completed. Known as the south yard of the Christopher Wren building at the College of William and Mary, it lies adjacent to the historic structure. The building is the oldest preserved and perhaps most iconic structure of Williamsburg, Virginia’s, colonial past. Still used today as an academic building, the Wren is the architectural representative of what is arguably the first and oldest college in the United States, chartered in 1693 and constructed between 1695 and 1700.

From mid-May through most of August, 2014, the yard was humming with archaeologists and teams of volunteers. Crouched or kneeling with trowels in hand, they painstakingly and methodically shaved and peeled away layers of soil, searching for and securing and recording any artifacts and architectural features they encountered. They were here because three years before, members of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research discovered evidence of structural foundations while conducting archaeological testing beneath a brick sidewalk in anticipation of its widening.



The Wren building is the oldest college building in continuous use in the United States. Construction of the building began in 1695 and was completed in 1700. To the left is the earliest known drawing of the Wren building by Swiss traveler Francois-Louis Michel, rendered in 1702. It was accompanied by the caption “The college standing in Willemsburg, in which the governor has his residence, 1702.” source url: http://www.patc.net/images/michel5.jpg

A Brew House?

Initial 2011 test pits gave few details, but the full excavation in 2014 soon revealed brick foundations of a 18’ by 20’ 18th century building, determined by archaeologists to have been built in the 1720’s or 1730’s, but gone by 1770. Curiously, it lacked any traces of a fireplace or chimney, but it featured a large, circular ash pit and a heap of bricks near its center. The structure was too large to have been a smokehouse or privy, say archaeologists, and the absence of a chimney and fireplace ruled out a bake house or kitchen. But the circular feature near the center and the discovery of wide drains and a faucet that might have been used to tap beer hinted at the possibility that this was a brew house or malt house. Historical documentation mentions a College brew house, and notes had been discovered in the historic College bursar related to payments for hops, a prime ingredient for making beer. In addition to tobacco, it is known that Williamsburg slaves were employed to grow hops. Confirmation still awaits lab test results on pollen and phytoliths within the soil samples taken from the site, which might reveal the presence of hops.


brewhouseoverallOverhead view of the 18th c. foundation discovered on the College of William and Mary Campus. Circular pit at the center was filled with ash, likely the result of brewing or malting.  (The building measures 18’ x 20’ with a later 8’ addition.) Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


The possibility of a brew or malt house is intriguing. Says Susan Kern, the Executive Director of the College of William & Mary’s Historic Campus, “the building itself as a place of labor is, to me, very interesting, because it concerns questions of who these people [who worked here] were, and entertains questions about what it takes to provision a college like this. The college had a kitchen, bakery, and other such operations needed to feed and provide for school masters and a student population—it thus sets up questions about the social and economic relationship of an institution like a college to other people and activities.”

Kern oversees the campus’s 17th and 18th century buildings, their archaeological resources and interpretation, and is also the preservation officer for the entire campus complex.

The possibility of a brew or malt house reinforces other accounts of what life was like during the 18th century for the college population. Beer consumption, for example, was almost as common as drinking water among the students and faculty, particularly as beer was considered safer than drinking water. It was not uncommon to serve beer, in addition to cider or other non-alcoholic drinks, at the tables within the dining halls of the school.

The Sawpit

The excavations at the location turned up another surprising element, however. Just to the east of the brick foundation structure archaeologists found traces of a large, rectangular-shaped pit feature measuring 23’ long and 12’ feet. From this location, they recovered large amounts of architectural artifacts, such as dressed stone, window elements, and brick. Their examination of the site and the finds suggested that it was used for a relatively short time and fell into disuse by about 1720.

“Until they got to the bottom of it, they really didn’t know what it was,” said Kern. But “the material at the top showed evidence of a feast – large oyster shells, large bones, wine bottles and pipe stems, hinting at some big event.” Among these artifacts at this stage were numerous fragments of what was later identified as an ornate Persan bleu flower urn dated to the early 18th century, what would be a rare find at any location in Williamsburg.

By the time they completed excavating through to the bottom of the cultural layers in the pit, they began to have some answers. It resembled similar sites that had been identified as colonial period sawpits, the more labor-intensive precursor to later saw mills. Such pits were used by carpenters in the 18th century to cut or saw timber into long planks used for construction. As the finds and stratigraphy dated it to earlier than the adjacent brick ‘brewery’ structure, “the building materials found at the bottom of the pit clarified the relationship of the site with the historic building,” continued Kern. Historical documents record that the Wren building burned down in 1705, but was reconstructed in the ensuing years. Workmen were likely at the site preparing the timber for the reconstruction. “The sawpit fills in the landscape of the area, and lets us imagine other people working in this environment and the space out there as a work yard.”  Kern imagines that the artifacts unearthed near the top of the pit were discarded from a feast held in celebration of the reconstruction completion. Once used, the sawpit served as a trash pit, including the refuse from the possible feast, and was subsequently filled in.


sawpitoverheadArchaeologists create a profile to record the sawpit fill. Measuring approximately 23’ x 12’, the pit was only partially excavated, preserving some of the fill for future archaeologists. The sawpit excavation os upper center in this photograph, adjacent to the “brew house” foundation excavation. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


sawpitstratigraphyLayers of fill within the sawpit contained early 18th century domestic and building debris, the latter from early 18th century rebuilding after a 1705 fire at the Wren Building. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


artifactsinscreenJust a few of the artifacts recovered from the sawpit including stoneware tankard fragments, a wine bottle base, nails, animal bones, fragments of tin-glazed earthenware. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


urninsituRecovered from the bottom of the sawpit, the flower urn was remarkably intact. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


The material collected from the Wren Yard excavations also has significance in the context of exploring current research areas and questions for the archaeologists and historians of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) and the College of William & Mary’s Historic Campus program, especially regarding slave life at the College location and in Williamsburg generally. “The excavations come at a time when we are looking more at the institution of slavery and slave life here, so they are ideal in this regard,” says Kern. Historical documents refer to the use of slaves in the construction and provisioning activities related to the College, as well as other historic buildings in the restored area of Williamsburg.

Into the Lab

As is standard with any archaeological excavation, once the excavation, mapping and other field recording was completed, the archaeologists moved on to process the finds in the lab—a process that involves carefully cleaning, identifying, cataloguing, data entry, and analysis of the finds prior to preparing the formal written reports of the excavation. This is an ongoing phase that could take many years, depending upon the nature and quantity of artifacts and the research goals, but it is perhaps the most important part of archaeological investigation. “It’s the less visible part of archaeology, “ says Kern, “but that is where we really learn the hard facts.”

A key part of the ongoing work focuses on reconstruction and preservation of many of the remains. Emily Williams is the Conservator of Archaeological Materials for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. An archaeologist in her own right, she has also found herself at a variety of excavations across the globe, even as she has been involved in conservation at Williamsburg for the past19 years. Along with a variety of objects recovered by archaeologists across the Colonial Williamsburg landscape, many rare and valuable artifacts pass through her lab for restoration and preservation. The facility, first established in 1931, pioneered the application of conservation in American historical archaeology and continues to be one of the largest labs of its kind in the U.S.   

“Our role is to stabilize any objects that need immediate attention to ‘survive’ and to help the archaeologists answer questions they may have about the site,” says Williams. “Conservation is often viewed as the process of making things whole again, bringing them back to their original appearance for public display. But it is far more than this. It also includes stabilizing all of the components of a piece, for example, so it can be studied further by researchers. The ultimate goal is to make a piece accessible for asking new questions in the future.”

Williams emphasizes the point that conservators are often integrated with the archaeologists as excavations occur, with questions going back and forth as new information is gleaned from the artifacts while they are being examined and conserved.  “Data collection takes place in the field,” she says, “but it continues as you begin to study them in the lab. Conservation contributes to that process, in that we can see how objects have been used and misused. Clues are written on their surfaces. By closely examining the make-up and changes that have taken place in the materials we can then ‘reconstruct’ an activity or process or series of events, even mistakes that were made in making things. This helps to humanize the past, helping to make connections to viewers about why the objects have meaning, making connections to their daily lives.” 

As in any scientific or technical discipline, archaeological conservation requires the application of knowledge, tools, techniques and processes, many of which are borrowed or applied from other disciplines and sciences, particularly the medical sciences. As a case in point, Williams refers to a watering can that was made in the early 1600s. It was excavated in 1964. It was one of the first things she worked on as a conservator at Williamsburg. “It was in for treatment prior to an exhibit,” she says. “There were a lot of tears in the surface of it and small bumps that looked like rivets that didn’t make sense. But when x-rayed we found that it was part of a decorative pattern—grapes hanging from a central vine. This raised its status as a “high-end” object and thus reflected on the social context of the find.”  There is a large x-ray facility in the basement of the building in which the lab is housed. It has been used, she says, to x-ray every single piece of iron brought in from the excavations. This is done in order to identify the objects under their corrosion crusts and determine which will be treated. Other equipment includes such things as Airbrasive tools that direct a narrow jet of air and abrasive powder at artifacts to clean them and expose their authentic original surfaces and features, pneumatic air scribes for removing hard, rocky concretions formed on artifacts over time within their sub-surface contexts, a freeze dryer used to conserve and treat waterlogged artifacts, such as those they receive from the excavations at Jamestown, Virginia (site of the first successful English colony in the Americas), and even a large physician’s ear-nose-and-throat microscope used to better facilitate the examination and cleaning of small objects. Finally, swabs and scalpels round out this albeit incomplete tool list.


wateringcan-002The watering can. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


But even with all of the equipment and materials at their disposal for doing their work, the CWF conservers have important rules of thumb that continuously guide and even constrain their use of the tools. “We try and use the ‘least aggressive’ methods,” she emphasizes. “We rely a lot on scalpel cleaning under the microscope, and it’s not as easy as it might look. It takes a fair amount of experience and skill to do it right. Chemical solutions at times help us in cleaning, but we carefully target them to the objects and the materials they are made from.”

A typical occupation in the lab involves the careful, methodical reconstruction or ‘mending’ of artifacts, such as ceramic ware, brought in from the excavation sites. Thousands of pottery sherds are commonly recovered from the archaeological sites in Williamsburg. From the Wren Yard excavations, a total of about 481 large bags of artifacts were recovered, most of them stored and processed in the receiving lab of the CWF. But some of the artifacts, particularly pieces identified for special examination and treatment, are brought into the conservation lab for attention.

One such example is the rare delft urn uncovered at the “brew house” site. Known as “Persan Bleu” (or Persian blue), the ceramic emulated the blue and white ceramics coming to Europe from East Asia. This piece poses particular problems because the glaze is very poorly adhered and has fallen off in many places. “Before we can even clean any dirt off the object we have to adhere the edges of the glaze back to the surface, then clean, adhere, clean…The loose glaze fragments are carefully washed and we hope to be able to mend some of them back on to the urn, giving us a better sense of the decorative scheme.”  Already, examination of the fragments has suggested the possibility that the archaeologists may have discovered the remains of two urns, rather than one.


Archaeology Lab view 5View of the conservation lab. Emily Williams is seen center, working on the Persan bleu urn. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


Archaeology Lab view 1Emily Williams in the lab, working on the Persan bleu urn. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


archaeologylabironobjectsxrayXray images taken of iron objects recovered from excavations. Such images help to identify and determine the details of the objects, often otherwise unrecognizable due to corrosion crusts when first recovered during an excavation. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


Looking Ahead

From the Wren Yard excavations alone, hundreds of bags of artifacts have been stored on shelves in the lab’s washroom. Thousands of artifacts were excavated from the “brew house” and sawpit locations combined, including more than 1,900 oyster shells from a single layer of the sawpit alone, with about 35 large plastic pails of shells in total from the site.

The artifacts won’t simply sit there. They will be grist for further handling and examination, providing deeper insights to the history of the sites and the life-ways related to them. “As artifacts and soil samples yield additional information, what we know about this building, and the pit beside it, will evolve,” states Meredith Poole, a senior staff archaeologist of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “Dates will be honed, and functions will be reconsidered.* We may be revising our interpretation of the building in the Wren Yard to include the possibility of it being a malt house. Interpretations are always fluid until all of the artifacts are processed and analyzed, and until we finish mulling over possibilities amongst ourselves and colleagues.”

Ultimately, the discoveries and information gleaned from the Wren Yard excavations will become part of the emerging total picture of an American colonial capital that has seen excavations at dozens of locations since 1928……and an American college that remains a  living reminder of an important historical period in U.S. history.



Cover Photo, Top Left, and Below: From overhead, a view of what may be a brew or malting house and (to its left) an earlier sawpit (two unrelated features). Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 



Did you find this interesting? You can read many more articles like this with a premium subscription to Popular Archaeology


As Founder and Editor of Popular Archaeology Magazine, Dan is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in archaeology.  He studied anthropology and archaeology in undergraduate and graduate school and has been an active participant on archaeological excavations in the U.S. and abroad.  He is the creator and administrator of Archaeological Digs, a popular weblog about archaeological excavation and field school opportunities.