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This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site

Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury

June 7, 2013

But is it Valuable?

Archaeologists have moved from the Armoury site to begin an excavation at Market Square.  Before leaving, we wanted to share some information about an artifact found early this spring, and pictured in an April 12th 2013 blog posting.  The pierced coin, shown above, post-dates the Armoury but may shed light on some of the property’s later residents.   In this post, Staff Archaeologist Andrew Edwards explains the significance of this find. 

1809 real found at the Armoury site.

1809 real found at the Armoury site.

Reverse of the 1809 real.

Reverse of the 1809 real.

Since the first of the year, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists have recovered two silver Spanish half-reals that were pierced so that they could have been worn as jewelry or amulets, or perhaps sewn into clothing for concealment.  Both coins were minted in Mexico in the first quarter of the 19th century as shown by the “Mo” mark on the reverse.  One of the coins was recovered from a site just beyond the Historic Area, near Merchants’ Square.  The other, shown above, was found in at the Armoury this past spring.  Unfortunately, both coins were found in what archaeologists call “disturbed contexts”, or from soil that has been mixed up or compromised in some way so that the artifacts within the stratum are mixed by date and origin.  Plowing, for example, effectively makes one layer out of several.  

Pierced coins have long been associated with African Americans, particularly enslaved African Americans who may have worn them as ornaments or talismans.  Theresa Singleton, in her 1995 review of the state of historical archaeology in North America mentions that several sites have yielded pierced coins, frequently of Spanish provenance, that were hung around the neck or ankle as charms for luck, a cure for rheumatism, or to ward away evil spirits[i]. For example, a white metal medallion and a pierced U.S. dime were recovered from African American contexts at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Tennessee[ii], and several pierced coins were also found in Alexandria, Virginia[iii], Monticello[iv], and Harmony Hall in Georgia[v].

According to archaeologists Laurie Wilkie, Paul Farnsworth, and David Palmer, many punched coins have been recovered from slave sites in Louisiana.  These coins are thought to have held protective powers and have their origins in West Africa where they were commonly worn to defend the wearer from harmful spirits.  They also discuss “birth coins” which bear the date of a child’s birth and are worn around his or her neck for protection and well-being.[vi]

Numerous pierced Spanish coins from various contexts have been found by Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeologists over the years.  While it is doubtful that all of the coins found here were owned by people of African origin, many undoubtedly were, adding to the already rich cultural compendium of objects used exclusively by Williamsburg’s “other half.”  

Contributed by Andrew Edwards, Staff Archaeologist                    



[i] Singleton, Theresa, 1995  “The Archaeology of Slavery in North America” , Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24 (1995). Pp. 119-140.

 [ii] Russell, Aaron, 1997         “Material Culture and African-American Spirituality at the Hermitage”, Historical Archaeology, vol. 31, No. 2 (1997) pp. 63-80.

 [iii]  Cressey, Pamela, 1994    “Pierced coin pendants worn by blacks in 1800s” Historic Alexandria.  Website: www.alexandriava.gov/historic/info/ . Accessed 3/12/2013.

 [iv] DAACS website, accessed 3/15/2013.

 [v]  Singleton, Theresa, 1991                “The Archaeology of Slave Life”, in Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South, Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr. and Kym S. Rice, editors.  Museum of the Confederacy and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

 [vi] Wilkie, Laurie, Paul Farnsworth, and David T. Palmer, 2010     “African American Archaeology”, in Archaeology of Louisiana, Mark A. Rees, editor. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge.



Leave a Reply

  1. Andrew and Merideth: we found a real as well at a mid-19th century site in Maryland in a slave context, that was pierced by a nail directly through the center. The real dates to ca. 1850. I also know that Poplar Forest has a Spanish Real that was pierced, as well. Lori Lee discusses it on page 184 of their latest book…http://www.amazon.com/Jeffersons-Poplar-Forest-Unearthing-Plantation/dp/0813039886/ref=pd_sim_b_6

    • should also note that the coin at Poplar Forest had teething marks on it, so a “birth coin” is probably a good interpretation in that case.

  2. re: Archaeologists have moved from the Armoury site to begin an excavation at Market Square.

    What is being excavated at this new site?

    • Also, what is being constructed via the roving cam behind the storage bldg?

      • Mike, Check out the blog post from May 3th….it shows a 3D view of the complete site. The workshop is going up now.

    • Hi Lane~
      The archaeologists have moved to Market Square for the summer to investigate the location of the Market House, which was built around 1757. So far, no luck, but the summer is still young!

  3. sorry…April 12th

    • Rick~
      You are correct (we’re going to deputize you to answer blog questions!) it is the workshop that is currently going up. This is an unheated building (no archaeological evidence for a fireplace) so there are limited types of work that might have gone on here. We are planning to use the reconstruction for a variety of activities including the construction of cannon carriages.

      After the workshop, the carpenters will get to work on the remaining two structures: a privy (right off the southwest corner of the workshop) and a second storage building. All will be completed in November.

  4. HI Armoury Crew,
    With the new building going up out back I was wondering what will the exterior be for it? This building does not have a fireplace so am I correct in my thinking that the items that are to be stored must be able to take temperature changes. Do you have any idea what was stored in the building?

    Thanks as always for sharing your knowledge.

    Have a great and safe Independence Day,

    • Hi Chris~
      Good to hear from you. You are right to point out that the lack of a fireplace poses some obstacles for use of the new workshop. Actually, we thought more about the activity that might have been possible in an unheated space rather than the effect on stored materials. Think, for example, about how disastrous it would be for a chilly tinsmith to be cutting sharp tin sheet in January. Having dug on this site in January, I can attest to the limited dexterity these conditions produce! We will use the new workshop for a variety of activities on a rotating basis. You will likely be able to see the production of canon carriages as one of the first. As for siding, I will have to defer to Garland Wood, our Master Carpenter. Let’s see what he says…..

      • Hi Meredith,
        Thanks for the info. I’ve been to CW in January or February. I agree with the dexterity issue. Wearing gloves for many tasks just does not cut it.
        A new question kind of on this subject. If a small workshop/building did not have a fireplace, did they use some kind of a smudge pot for some heat? Or did they have a fire going out side so they could get some warmth as I’ve seen in other areas of the restored area at times on evening walks or at program sites?

        As always, thanks for sharing your knowledge,

  5. Christine
    I would think that the same type siding that was used on most small shops and storage buildings through out CW. Some were beaded and others like the smaller storage right behind the Armoury. I wound even think that Anderson used it for overflow tin work during the war as well .
    Notice there appears to be a large doorway opening which Meredith said they may use it to make canon carriages. I can’t tell if the floor will be wood or dirt. Without a fireplace I don’t think workers be in it it for very long in the winter. One thing for sure, it will be interesting to see it progress.

  6. Hi Ken or Meredith,
    Please refer to my question of July 3, 2013 at 10:57 a.m.
    There have been several different exterior materials used on the site. Will this one have another example of sidings used in the 18th century or the same as the other storage building?

    Thanks for all you do,

    • Christine – We have decided that the “workshop” we are reconstructing is from the Revolutionary war period, and so it’s exterior finish will resemble that of the storehouse just south of the Armoury – rough sawn but beaded weatherboard, rounded cypress shingles, and whitewash. There will be no interior sheathing or plaster, and a clay floor like the floor in the Armoury kitchen. There will be workbenches attached to the east and west walls, under large six-over-six sashes, currently under construction in the joiner’s shop. No heat, although tinmen could have warmed their hands over the brazier used to heat the soldering irons, or, like someone suggested, warm themselves at a fire outside. Probably the workshop was used as a multi-purpose shop, for both metal working and woodworking. Its first use will be as a wheelwrights shop for gun carriages.
      The storage building closest to Francis Street is prewar, and thus finished with clapboards like the Tin Shop and the Kitchen, and probably painted with tar paint. No windows, a wood floor, about eight by ten feet square. It will look a lot like the northernmost building in the back yard of the Peyton Randolph house…

      • Hi Garland,

        Thanks for all the info on the new small building out back.

        I’ll keep to watching the progress.

        Have a great week,


  7. I’ve been watching since discovering the cameras while the coffee house was being finished, and never tire of watching a building go up.

    Rounded shingles seem like an expensive roof for a shop. It would seem less expensive shingles would be used on a building with rough sawn siding.

    Does the rounded shape make the shingle perform better, or is there another reason?

    Thanks again for the cams!

    • Dave – In 1778, the State of Virginia built a Tanyard and Ropewalk in Chesterfield County, with industrial buildings, houses, a hospital and various outbuilding. We are fortunate enough to have a surviving carpenters bill from that work, which included a charge for beading the siding and rounding the shingles for the buildings. In my opinion, both were done for decorative purposes, and had no practical benefit. The work at the State Tanyard and Ropewalk give us evidence of the level of finish expected of a State workshop, and so both of those details have been included in the our new building’s design.

  8. Hi Garland,
    Great information added to what you have already given us about the “workshop.”
    Thanks for all of the knowledge you share. I know it takes time….but it is appreciated.
    Stay cool,