Unearthing the Opulence

A recapture of the historic excavation of America's iconic 18th century Governor's Palace at Colonial Williamsburg.

About 80 years ago, more than five years before the onset of World War II, American laborers and archaeologists completed reconstruction on what was perhaps America’s most iconic architectural symbol of British colonialism—the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. Just before the outbreak of revolutionary war, it was still the seat of British power and authority on American soil. Today, it is arguably the grandest reconstructed visible reminder of the U.S. colonial past. The following article (originally published in March 2014 in Popular Archaeology Magazine) by Meredith Poole, senior staff archaeologist with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, revisits the events and people who resurrected the Palace from its oblivion on the landscape, creating a powerful magnet for thousands of visitors every year and, to this day, still a subject for education and historical research.



Three days before Christmas, 1781, the sun set on the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg for the final time. A few hours later, an errant spark…or a disaffected citizen… set fire to this stately brick edifice, reducing it to rubble by sunrise.  News of the unfortunate event spread quickly, prompting the following lines in a Charleston newspaper:  

“Last Saturday night about eleven o’clock the palace in the City of Williamsburg, which is supposed to have been set on fire by some malicious person, was in three hours burnt to the ground. This elegant building has been for sometime past a continental hospital, and upwards of one hundred sick and wounded soldiers were in it when the fire was discovered, but by the timely exertions of a few people, only one perished in the flames.”

(The Royal Gazette of Charleston, South Carolina)

The dramatic story of the wounded soldiers aside, the loss of the Palace was devastating. Indeed, if the story had ended with that smoldering rubble, today’s visitor to Colonial Williamsburg might feel cheated. 

The reconstructed Palace is among Colonial Williamsburg’s most popular attractions, welcoming more than 350,000 visitors each year. While far fewer eighteenth-century citizens were invited through its scrolled iron gates, the “Palace” (perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to the excesses of its construction) was an attraction. Completed in 1722 after sixteen years of labor, this over-the-top residence for the royal governor, the king’s representative in Virginia, was unlike anything most citizens had seen on this side of the Atlantic. The interior incorporated extravagant materials: marble floors and walnut paneling. As many as twenty support buildings…from an ice house to a smokehouse to a bathhouse… dotted its landscape, and the lavish grounds included canals, terraces, walks, and ornamental gardens. True, by 1781 (as the newspaper article hints) many of these glories had begun to fade, particularly after 1780 when removal of the capital to Richmond took the sitting governor, Thomas Jefferson, with it.  Nevertheless, the vacated Palace remained an iconic building, symbolizing the importance — even in the past tense — of Williamsburg as political center. 



 The reconstructed Governor’s Palace. Photo credit: Roy Kelley


Fast-forward to 1927. Fueled by the vision of cleric/preservationist Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin and the philanthropic impulse of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., plans for restoring Williamsburg to its eighteenth-century heyday were underway. Behind the patched facades of the twentieth-century town, researchers had discovered eighty-eight buildings dating from the 1700s…a healthy core, but only a fraction of those standing at the eve of the American Revolution. Among the missing were public buildings important to Williamsburg’s identity: the Capitol, the Raleigh Tavern, and the Governor’s Palace. To move the restoration forward, evidence for these buildings would have to be located. And so in November 1928 Williamsburg’s Advisory Committee of Architects, a steering committee of respected professionals, moved that: “Someone, preferably an archaeologist, be hired to make a thorough record of the restoration.”

Prentice Duell hardly seemed to be that man. Trained as an architect, he was a lecturer in classical archaeology at Bryn Mawr and had just completed a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. In 1930, as he was being courted to oversee the Palace excavation, Duell had just been named the Oriental Institute’s Field Director for the Sakkarah Pyramid Expedition. Such a resume begs the question: Why an Egyptologist in Williamsburg?

Archaeology was a different discipline in 1930. Today, Colonial Williamsburg employs historical archaeologists, specializing in sites and artifacts of North America’s documented past. In Duell’s time, this distinction was still decades in the future, leaving classical archaeologists and Egyptologists at the forefront of the field. Particularly in the wake of Howard Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen, archaeology’s “big names” were to be found among the ranks of Egyptologists. 

And so on Monday morning, June 30th 1930, Egyptologist Prentice Duell found himself in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the south end of Palace Green, surveying the project area. It might have been easier to imagine a pyramid on this landscape than it was to envision the Palace. Once the tree-lined approach to the seat of royal authority, Palace Green was now cluttered with monuments to more recent history. Power lines swung lazily over the street, and in the near distance a marble obelisk commemorated the Civil War dead. Williamsburg’s new high school, completed in 1921, occupied the northern end of the green, and in its shadow stood the 1870 Matty School.  What Duell saw was a neighborhood. Behind the schools, in the former “governor’s park,” a network of streets delivered Williamsburg residents to their 20th century destinations: the Virginia Electric and Power Company, the Williamsburg Laundry, an ice-making plant, a tin shop, and the C&O railroad station. There were homes sprinkled among these businesses…but no visible evidence of eighteenth century grandeur.



The Palace neighborhood in 1929. Major Palace features outlined in red; 20th century buildings in blue. Diamond shapes are brick piers marking garden walls (image based on architectural drawing entitled “Sketch of Site of Colonial Governor’s Palace and Grounds as it appeared in 1929 before excaations were made.” May 23, 1933.) Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Historic maps and drawings told a different story. Duell’s arsenal included three key pieces: the Frenchman’s Map, drawn near the end of the American Revolution, indicated the Palace’s placement relative to the town. The Bodleian Plate, a 1740 copperplate engraving named for the British library in which it had recently been discovered, provided elevations for the Palace and its Advance Buildings, and hinted at the surrounding gardens. The final clue was a sketch done by Thomas Jefferson in 1779. Recently elected Virginia’s governor, Jefferson was planning changes to his new home, and had begun the renovations with this carefully measured floor plan.



Detail of the Governor’s Palace from the Frenchman’s Map (note L-shaped building). (Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.)



 Detail of Governor’s Palace from the Bodleian Plate (1740). Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


A team of nine gathered with Duell on that late June morning: field superintendent Herbert Ragland, a foreman and 7 laborers supplied by the contracting firm of Todd & Brown, Inc. Armed with shovels, they started behind the Matty School, digging trenches in a location suggested by the Frenchman’s Map. Within the day, their efforts were rewarded with plaster and brick rubble, then sections of a brick drain. Tuesday brought an eighth worker, a few sections of intact wall, and some recognizable artifacts: a “front door key,” “some beautiful pottery and china fragments,” and a few bones (perhaps too hastily declared human by the former superintendent of the state mental institution). A breathless Western Union telegram announced the day’s findings to the Rockefeller office in New York.  By Wednesday afternoon, a steadily growing work force exposed a section of the Palace’s cellar floor in a trench 7 feet below grade. The excavation was off to a successful start.



Excavations behind the Matty School, which was demolished in 1930 and not restored. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


At first glance, the presence of a “trained archaeologist” on the site seems to have had little impact; what would happen over the next four months on the Palace site typified the state of “archaeology” in 1930. The project was unabashedly architectural in its focus. Duell was employed by architects, whose goal was accurate reconstruction on original foundations, using authentic materials and correct finishes. Excavators were there to retrieve that evidence. Tools were large—mainly picks and shovels– and those who wielded them were employed for their ability to move dirt. To the modern archaeological ear, descriptions of the process are jarring. Ragland recalled that “In excavating the debris of brick, mortar and plaster, which was found in the entire basement, the debris was under cut as much as possible so that it fell away from and exposed the walls before they were struck by the picks of the workmen.  This was not delicate work. 



Palace cellar, early August 1930. One of the figures in a white suit is likely Prentice Duell. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 


Not surprisingly, progress was quick. An image captured in early August shows the Palace cellar nearly emptied of charred brick rubble. A procession of laborers push mounded wheelbarrows up a long ramp, at the bottom of which stand two nattily attired gentlemen (one of whom is likely Duell) looking suspiciously fresh in the heat of a Virginia summer. 

By August 8th, Ragland reports that they had “practically finished excavation of the basement.” The foundation walls were found to be largely intact to a height of about 4 feet. Indeed, visitors to the cellars today may be able to detect the height at which the Palace’s original brick wall gives way to the newer brick used in reconstruction. The floors, paved with a combination of stone and brick, also survived to be incorporated into the reconstruction. One of the project’s most interesting revelations was that the back wall of the (1870) Matty school had been built directly on top of the Palace’s front wall, suggesting that the latter was visible (or at least accessible) when the school was constructed. This was not a happy coincidence for the Matty School; by July 22nd demolition was underway. With both the Palace cellar and a later ballroom addition now in the clear, the project’s architects compared the outline to Jefferson’s 1779 floor plan and found a match. The recovery effort had taken just over 5 weeks. 


N1863 CN

Overall image of excavated Palace cellar. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 


But if excavation methods were quick and crude by today’s standards, we should acknowledge some moments of archaeological precocity. At a time when foundations were prized far above their contents, Duell designated twelve “excavation areas” within the Palace cellar, providing a rough provenience for recovered artifacts. Recognizing that, in a fire, building materials from upper floors would collapse into the spaces directly below, Duell began to draw order and pattern from the cellar’s jumbled debris. Slabs of black and white dressed marble recovered from the cellar’s south central end were interpreted as a checkered pattern marble floor in the first floor hall, above. Likewise, two halves of a marble mantel, carved with a deer motif, were scooped from the rubble in the south-east corner of the cellar, now mended and reinstalled above the first-floor front parlor fireplace in the reconstructed Palace. 



The entrance hall within the reconstructed Palace showing the marble floor. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 


Other artifacts found more general homes in the reconstruction. Eight complete delft tiles recovered from one of the Palace’s arched brick drains were incorporated into decorative fireplace surrounds: six manganese (purple) decorated tiles in the first floor “Little Middle Room” are survivals from the Palace, as are two cobalt (blue) decorated tiles in the northeast upstairs bedchamber. Despite more than a century underground, they defy detection in a surrounding field of antiques… although visitors are challenged to try!



Cobalt-decorated delft tiles surround fireplace in Palace bedchamber. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.    


Whether whole or broken, artifacts received more attention during the Palace excavation than they would for another three decades at Colonial Williamsburg. Ragland ended each week’s notes with a familiar refrain: “Wheeled all excavated material to rear of the lot.” Images reveal the resulting mountain of fill heaped in front of the Virginia Power Company. By late September (1930), as the pace of excavation began to slow, laborers were dispatched two or three at a time to screen this cellar fill, searching for overlooked evidence of the Palace’s design. Ultimately, more than 50 “fish crates” – rough wooden boxes measuring 15” x 28” x 15”—full of artifacts, were recovered from the Palace property. Though heavily biased toward architectural materials (chunks of marble, locks, hinges, hooks, and tile fragments), this collection marks a vast increase over the 2 or 3 crates retained from contemporary Williamsburg excavations. Fish crates were stacked in the first floor hall of the adjacent high school, ultimately finding their way into two first floor classrooms designated as temporary exhibit space. This impromptu museum would be undone when the excavation’s success resulted in the school’s demolition.



Workers screen a mound of Palace fill in front of the Virginia Electric and Power Co. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.



 Fish crates of archaeological artifacts stacked in hallway of old Williamsburg High School. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.



Archaeological artifacts spread out on tables inside the old Williamsburg High School. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.



Though Duell was the Palace excavation’s big name, it was Ragland, from nearby Richmond Virginia, who kept the project moving. It was he who kept records of each day’s progress, and of the growing number of unnamed workers employed. By the end of July, more than 60 men were engaged as excavation spilled out beyond the Palace cellar and onto the Palace grounds. 

Many were searching for Palace outbuildings named in eighteenth century documents, but long vanished from the landscape. Trenches dug to the underlying “hardpan” successfully teased these brick foundations from the soil, but without consistentcollection of artifacts, it was difficult to understand each building’s use. Some foundations spoke for themselves: the smokehouse, for example, displayed a characteristic central fire-pit, filled with ash from smoking meats. Other identifications required deductive reasoning. The kitchen, known through records to have been constructed simultaneously with the Palace, was identified by the similarity of its brick. The laundry was identified as the foundation straddling the Palace’s arched brick drain…a useful feature for shunting wash water. And the Governor’s bannio, or bathhouse, was most certainly the exotic eight-sided foundation in the west courtyard.  One “dependency”, the Governor’s ice house, survived intact—although by one schoolboy’s account, it was repurposed as a pirate’s cave early in the twentieth century.



 The excavated Palace smokehouse foundation. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Other survivals included earthen terraces, constructed during the tenure of Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood (ca. 1717), and recorded on the Frenchman’s Map.  Though heavily eroded, these terraces were reestablished using archaeologically-discovered stair nosings as indicators of their original height. In general, however, garden features proved elusive to Duell and his team. Excavation techniques were primarily to blame. Though trenches were an efficient means of locating brick foundations (and in the case of the Palace, brick piers that framed the garden wall), they were highly unsuccessful in locating less solid features: planting beds and marl pathways separating the Palace’s formal gardens. Today, open-area excavation and the recovery of archaeobotanical samples would allow the Governor’s garden to bloom again. In 1930, however, excavators had reached the limit of methods at their disposal.

It was while searching for garden evidence that excavators made their most startling Palace discovery. Sometime during the middle of July, a worker trenching west of the Palace began to find bones. Swapping a putty knife for his shovel, he soon exposed a human skeleton.  Over the next month that single burial became two burials… and eventually dozens. They were laid out in orderly rows, suggesting that each mounded grave had still been visible when the next was dug. Evidently, this cemetery was filled over a short period of time…but who were its occupants? Duell solicited the expertise of the Smithsonian Institution’s Dr. Ales Hrdlička, one of the most respected physical anthropologists of his time. According to a Western Union telegram, Dr. Hrdlička boarded the train from Washington to Williamsburg on August 19th, arriving at 3:22 p.m. By the time he re-boarded at noon the following day, Hrdlička had examined 66 burials prepared for his inspection. A dictated report renders his assessment of the age, sex, and physical condition of the 58 best-preserved specimens. Hrdlička’s pronouncements are often unexplained, and occasionally colorful:   “[Burial number] 4. Male.  Medium stature; sub-normal in strength. Abcess (sic) of jaw (bad tooth); both legs and thigh badly fractured probably causing death (probably run over); died in pain.” 



Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian, examining a skull recovered during excavations in the West garden of the Governor’s Palace. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 


By summer’s end, 158 burials were laid out in the Palace’s west garden. Of these, 156 were identified as male and 2 as female, nearly all between the ages of 25 and 35.  The gender disparity and their youth caused Duell to observe that “these individuals were not the victims of an epidemic. In such a case, a fair cross-section of the population would be represented; here they are all young people and of an age which is the least susceptible to epidemic of any kind.”  This appeared to be a military population. Though it would take months to piece together supporting evidence from associated artifacts and documentary sources, the cemetery was eventually linked to those final days of the Revolutionary War, when the vacated Palace was repurposed as that military hospital described in the Charleston Royal Gazette. The 158 bodies interred in the west garden were casualties of the Battle of Yorktown, disease, or the treatment thereof.  



Drawing illustrating the archaeological survey of the Revolutionary War Cemetery. Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 


Following the 1930 excavation, the bodies of soldiers (and perhaps two nurses) discovered in the Palace yard were reburied. We have no record of who they might be, though a list of the wounded treated at the Palace may surface one day. For the time being, the Palace cemetery keeps a low profile. Unsuspecting visitors might overlook the grassy lawn nestled between the Palace gardens and the canal, or the marble plaque that describes what was discovered here in 1930.   

By September, work at the Palace was winding down. Ragland’s daily notes mention screening, photography, and mapping. The labor force dwindled from 17 men, to 4, and then 3. Some days Ragland simply indicated “No work done.” While there was a short burst of digging in 1931 after a street closure opened new parts of the Palace grounds, the Governor’s Palace excavation was largely complete within 4 months. During that time, workers covered an area measuring nearly 6 acres. Ragland wrote the final, 10 page report.  

And so what became of the Egyptologist? Duell left Williamsburg in October of 1930, bound for Egypt and the Sakkarah Expedition. An October departure was always part of Duell’s plan, and while he proposed an annual, 5-month return to Williamsburg, the Sakkarah expedition would consume the next five years of his life. He went on to have an illustrious career. In 1938 he published the monumental volume “Mastaba of Mereruka” describing and illustrating that project’s finds. He can be found in Who Was Who in Egyptology, and Who Was Who in America. He held an appointment as associate professor of ancient Mediterranean art at the University of Chicago….but he never returned to Williamsburg.


In December of 1931, a different set of laborers arrived on the site of the Governor’s Palace to begin rebuilding. It was completed in April of 1934, and has now survived longer as a reconstruction than it stood in its original form. Are there questions that were left unanswered by the 1930 excavation? Of course. Archaeology’s goals and techniques have changed radically since 1930, making new questions inevitable. A large “L-shaped” building depicted on the Frenchman’s Map remains a mystery. Workers were so puzzled by what they found there in 1930 that the building was never reconstructed.  We have some ideas….but that’s a dig for another day.  


Cover Photo, Top Left: View of the reconstructed Governor’s Palace. Humberto Moreno, Wikimedia Commons


spring2015coverfinal6Did you like this? Read more articles like this with a premium subscription to Popular Archaeology Magazine. 

In addition, the latest Popular Archaeology ebook is now available.






Travel and learn with Far Horizons.



peter sommer travels image

discovery2014cover2Popular Archaeology’s annual Discovery Edition eBook is a selection of the best stories published in Popular Archaeology Magazine in past issues, with an emphasis on some of the most significant, groundbreaking, or fascinating discoveries in the fields of archaeology and paleoanthropology and related fields. At least some of the articles have been updated or revised specifically for the Discovery edition.  We can confidently say that there is no other single issue of an archaeology-related magazine, paper print or online, that contains as much major feature article content as this one. The latest issue, volume 2, has just been released. Go to the Discovery edition page for more information.
















Meredith Poole has been a Staff Archaeologist with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for 26 years.  In addition to field work, her responsibilities include outreach and archaeology education.  Meredith received her MA in Anthropology from the College of William and Mary, and her BA from Hamilton College.