Digging into Ferry Farm

Archaeology: 10-year project at George Washington's boyhood home is expected to produce a wealth of information about his childhood.

October 17, 2002|By Elizabeth Pezzullo | Elizabeth Pezzullo,THE FREE-LANCE STAR

STAFFORD, Va. - George Washington's boyhood home may not look like much above the surface. But with every layer of dirt archaeologists scrape away, remnants of 18th-century farm life are revealed.

A team of diggers from Mary Washington College and the University of South Florida spent the summer excavating at Ferry Farm in southern Stafford County. This is the first full-scale archaeological dig done at the site between the Rappahannock River and Route 3.

The project will continue for 10 years. When it's done, historians and scientists will have gobs more information on the nation's founding father.

"This is the place that shaped him to become the man he was," said David Muraca, chief archaeologist at Ferry Farm. "We'll know more about him and all the Washingtons."

In 1738, the Washington family moved to Ferry Farm so George's father, Augustine, could be closer to his ironworks business on Accokeek Creek. George was 6 at the time. He would live there until he was a teen-ager.

The family farm has become legendary for the myths born there, such as those about a young George chopping down a cherry tree and tossing a coin across the Rappahannock River. While archaeologists won't be able to shed much light on the veracity of those stories, they will discover where the main houses were built, as well as the kitchen and, perhaps, slaves' quarters.

"In 10 years, we'll know the whole spatial layout of an 18th-century plantation," Muraca said.

But that's not all. Archaeologists will be able to get a sense of the relationship the Washington family had with its slaves and indentured servants. For example, if parts of locks or keys are found, it could be the master's home. Those artifacts found at a slave dwelling would indicate that the master trusted his slaves to lock up their possessions. Many masters wanted to be able to rifle through their slaves' quarters.

The same case could be made for bullet artifacts. If they are found in a slave's house, it could mean the master trusted his slaves not to use the ammunition against the family.

"All artifacts talk," Muraca said. "But some talk louder than others."

Work is being done on the northern section of the farm. Archaeologists - both students and volunteers - broil in the sun as they painstakingly brush the soil. This dig site is about 20 feet wide and 40 feet long, Muraca said. But it could expand.

The researchers have discovered the remains of a cellar and a fireplace hearth. They've also found ceramics, window glass and a Spanish coin turned into a pendant. In one of the pits, the remains of what looks like a pig have been unearthed. A femur can be seen poking out of the dirt. Tusks and small teeth have already been removed and put into a bucket.

The artifacts discovered in this season's digging have been taken to an on-site lab for analysis.

"That's when the game begins of taking all this information and piecing it together," Muraca said. "It's like a giant jigsaw puzzle." Once the project is done, a long swath of land - near where the property slopes to the river - will be unpeeled.

Coincidentally, early on the Fourth of July this year, a corroded and dirt-covered American-flag pin was discovered in the soil at Ferry Farm.

"It's not very old," Muraca said. "But it dawned on me that there wouldn't be a United States if there wasn't a George Washington."

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