Diggers find glimpses of Williamsburg

Colonial capital was more crowded and complex than portrayed

July 18, 2002|By Andrew Petkofsky | Andrew Petkofsky,RICHMOND TIMES-DISPACH

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - The elegant homes and gardens of 18th-century Williamsburg might have existed in a busy and crowded landscape of barns and sheds and workyards quite unlike the sedate atmosphere of the restored historic area today.

Archaeologists exploring beneath the ground on the site of a proposed parking garage just outside the historic area have found evidence that a grand home and its garden existed within the same block as a stable, brick kiln, window-making shop, saw pit and other proto-industrial facilities.

Although the remains being examined date to the period 1725-1749, a quarter-century before the American Revolution, archaeologists say the discoveries show the landscape of the Colonial capital was probably a good deal more crowded and complex than its portrayal in the nearby restored area.

The archaeologists believe they have found remains of a property that was owned first by a well-known brickmason, and then by a carpenter and house-builder, who crowded their homes and work facilities into a space of something more than an acre.

`Much more lively'

"It's the kind of property that you do not see reconstructed in the historic area at this point," said Marley Brown, Colonial Williamsburg's director of archaeological research.

But based on the current dig and other new research, Brown believes the restored houses in their day had much more around them than their neighboring gardens and kitchens and neat little sheds.

"In fact, many of these properties were much more lively than that," he said.

Although earlier generations of archaeologists dug through much of the historic area as reconstruction progressed in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Brown said, techniques then in use did not reveal the remains of "earthfast" buildings that were anchored to the ground by wooden poles rather than masonry foundations, he said.

More recently, the areas open for exploration have been relatively small, so researchers have been unable to examine large areas to see how all the parts of the community fit together.

That changed this spring as archaeologists began to examine an acre-size parcel on which the city government will build a three-deck, $7 million parking garage starting in September. The ground has long been used for parking lots behind the buildings and homes that front surrounding streets.

Brown said historians working in the restoration had studied land records for the block and learned something about the families that owned land there in the 1700s.

Although it was not included in the official historic area, the property was within the western limits of 18th-century Williamsburg.

Records show the carpenter, James Wray, had a household on the property that included, in addition to his immediate family, 21 slaves and a dozen apprentices and other tradesmen.

He lived and plied his trade from buildings that were probably put up by brickmason David Menetrie, who lived there before him.

Buildings `robbed out'

After Wray died in 1749, his wife auctioned off all his supplies and tools, and the land eventually passed to Wray's son.

Brown said it appears the buildings were torn down and "robbed out" for usable building supplies in the decade after Wray's death, and no buildings were ever reconstructed in the lot's interior.

Because of that, the archaeological record from the 18th century is very clear.

Archaeologists have found remains of brick-making, roofing, flooring and window-making facilities, barns, a brick walkway and a large brick house foundation containing some artifacts, including fine porcelain, that indicate the homeowners' considerable wealth.

Alongside all the trade work areas were what appear to be Wray's garden and large stable. "He had pastoral pretensions," Brown said. Although the archaeologists plan to finish their work next month, Brown said the project is sure to influence the way Colonial Williamsburg interprets history in the restored area.

He said it's certain the outdoor museum won't be completely revamped, but certain properties may start to become more crowded with adjacent sheds and work yards as research into the past and the perpetual work of the restoration continues.

In the near future, the archaeologists will write a book about their findings and possibly reconstruct the 18th-century appearance of the site through computer modeling.

"This will be useful for rethinking and redoing some sites in the historic area," Brown said.

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