This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site
Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury
May 3, 2013
About 5 weeks ago, at the outset of our spring excavation, we posted the picture above. It was intended to help readers see what we saw…areas that piqued our interest as we resumed exploration of a large pit discovered in 2012. The dotted lines indicate differences in soil color. The question marks identify those things we did not yet know, but hoped to learn before the end of April. Now, with the “Sawpit Excavation” behind us, it’s time for some preliminary reporting on what we’ve learned.
The image below is our “after” picture, illustrating what was found beneath all of those question marks. As you can see, we called the “shapes” pretty well. The “large pit” turned out to be smaller than expected: 12’ x 16’ instead of 12’ x 20’ (probing is not always an accurate indicator of a pit’s extent!). We know that it has a rectangular shape, although you may notice that we left ¼ of the fill for future archaeologists to explore with their improved technology and different questions. The pit measures about 3.5’ deep.
None of these characteristics is inconsistent with our original theory that this is a sawpit- a pit dug into the ground to enable pairs of sawyers (with a pit saw between them) to cut long plank. Master Carpenter Garland Wood believes that 16’ is long enough to serve the purpose, and that the width of this pit would have accommodated at least 2 pairs of sawyers. We hypothesize that, under pressure to the Armoury complex quickly, carpenters may have opted to prepare materials on-site.
While this interpretation may still make sense, there are some unanswered archaeological questions. If this is, indeed, a sawpit, where is the evidence for a framework? At the very least we expected a trestle…represented in the ground by postholes… to support a platform above. More significantly, where is evidence for a cover? We have learned through cruel experience that a single hard rain can spell collapse for a hole such as this, and yet the sides of the pit are straight and crisp indicating that they were never exposed to the elements. Did later construction obliterate the posts we were looking for? Admittedly, our confidence in the sawpit interpretation waivered a bit during the course of this project.
And then we found a second one.
Just to the west of the first sawpit, the second pit looked (initially) to be a basin-shaped depression. The upper layers produced large ceramic fragments, principally (and strangely) chamber pots, and below that, quantities of brick rubble. As excavation proceeded, the basin became a neat rectangular hole, straight-sided, flat-bottomed, and with a drain cut through the center to channel rainwater. Unlike the first pit, it exhibited the expected postholes—two on the east and two on the west—indicating that a trestle was supported over it. While our 4 man sawpit might remain in question, there is no doubt that the small hole is a 2-man sawpit. And (of course) there is guilt by association.
At present we feel comfortable interpreting both of these features as sawpits, though there are still some details to work out. We know that they were not there at the same time. The smaller pit cuts into the larger one, making it more recent. The bottom layers of the larger pit are filled with trash from the Armoury: clinker, gunflints, and half-completed iron objects, suggesting that it had become a handy trash receptacle by the time the Armoury started to function. That the smaller pit comes later is verified by the fact that there are very few “industrial” artifacts in it. Instead, the fill consists mostly of household refuse. It is possible that the brick rubble comprising its fill represents the demolition of a house shown standing on the Frenchman’s Map (1782) just to the south.
What else did we find? Although we are still a long way from having a clean and completed inventory of artifacts, we have formed some impressions of what was in the pit. There were certainly lots of animal remains ….not just the butchered remains of Armoury meals, but the articulated skeletons of a cat, and what appear to be two ducks and three roosters. Given that they were “whole”, it is unlikely that they were eaten. Some readers remember that last year’s excavation produced 6 dog burials. And so begins our next round of “question marks.”
Here are some other artifacts that we stopped to photographed along the way…..
-Contributed by Meredith Poole, Staff Archaeologist.
April 12, 2013
Three-and-a-half short months ago our Historic Trades team raised the frame for the new Tin Shop. Some of you may have braved the cold and the pre-holiday rush to be present for that event. It may seem hard to believe, but in the coming week construction on the Tin Shop draws to a close. Once sealed with a coat of tar paint, the Tin Shop will join the Blacksmith Shop, the Kitchen, and the North Storage Building as part of the rapidly growing Armoury complex.
This week’s gallery offers a look at recent activity on the site. As you will see, the action is shared among the carpenters, joiners, and brick masons who have so ably reconstructed 4 Armoury buildings to date (3 remain!), the researchers who help to inform that work, and the many trades- and interpretive staff whose extraordinary skills and knowledge bring the Armoury to life. This is truly a team effort!
March 25, 2013
Recently, the Roving Webcam has been covering early weeks of the 2013 archaeological season at the back (or south end) of the Armoury property. This spring’s project picks up where archaeologists left off last fall, with the exploration of a large, rectangular pit feature that we are tentatively calling a sawpit. Whether or not that identification holds water remains to be seen.
Archaeological excavation is not always easy to decipher, and so for those of you wondering what has been taking place over the last three weeks, the following serves as a bit of explanation. The image above (looking a little like a Rorschach test) shows the site as it appeared on Friday afternoon, before the late March snow and rain. (We hope that it will eventually dry out so that it looks this way again!). You should be able to see a variety of colors…predominantly brown, but with some variation. Below, the same image identifies modern “features” that have been removed in recent weeks as archaeologists have made their way down to earlier chapters in the site’s history. Among the intrusions are 2 modern fencepost holes filled with cement, remnants of diagonal trenches dug in 1941 as excavators engaged in early efforts to find brick foundations, and two backfilled archaeological units dating to 1975.
This week we will turn our attention to a few interesting forms that that have just appeared. If your eyes are quite good, you may be able to use the unmarked image at the top of the page to identify the outline of the remaining “sawpit” fill extending northward from the 2012 sand backfill (hint: it’s easiest to see along the east side where it seems to be lined in black). If not, we have dotted the edges (in the image below) of what we believe to be the pit’s extent. Over the course of the next few weeks we will be excavating the fill, layer by layer, to see if the “sawpit” diagnosis seems plausible, or whether this hole proves more cellar-like in the final analysis.
Also intriguing is a rectangular area west of the sawpit which appears to be filled with brick rubble and artifacts. In the image above it is marked with a “?” ….which sums up what we currently know about this feature. It was a mystery in 2012 when we encountered the same “shelf-like” extension cut into the side of the pit (see white arrow, in the image below). Perhaps the next few weeks will provide answers. As we get deeper… literally, and figuratively….into these questions, we will provide updates on what we’ve found, and what it tells us.
Meredith Poole, Staff Archaeologist.
March 8, 2013
There are two questions that seem to be on the top of readers’ minds today. The first is “where is the roving webcam located?” This morning we moved the roving webcam to the back of the Armoury property where it is focused on the new archaeological excavation (started on Monday), and on the brick masons laying the foundation for the Armoury’s workshop. The graphic above should give you a sense of the camera’s position.
The second question is about Eleanor, the Armoury cat, and how she is handling the changes (and the foul weather) all around her. As you can see from the images below, Eleanor is faring quite nicely. We should all experience stress in such comfort!
February 25, 2013
The longer we work at the Public Armoury, the broader the pool of experts from which we can draw! In this blog post we introduce a new author, Tim Sutphin, Director of Music, Military, and Evening Programs. After the digging is done, and once the hammers are quiet, it is Tim who is responsible for introducing additional elements of interpretive programming to the Historic Trades activities already established on the site. Interpretive programming uses the combined resources of historical research, archaeological research, trades research, and program and presentation skills. Tim joins the discussion and shares his insights as program developer as we move into program planning and implementation phase.
As we enter the last phase of construction at the Armoury site, our thoughts turn to programming, and how it will expand and evolve on this dynamic site. There is already a great deal of activity at the Armoury: the blacksmiths have been working in the new shop for nearly a year now, and have given it an appropriate “lived in” look. Foodways staff is bringing the kitchen to life by preparing simple working class-fare several days a week. The hearty stews, and bread from the bread oven offer a great contrast to elaborate meals prepared in the Palace kitchen. But there is more activity in store. With completion of the tinsmith shop anticipated for mid-April, we are interviewing applicants with hope of having an active tinsmith shop by mid-summer. This will add a new trade to the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Trades program.
Moving into spring and summer, guests will see increasing military activity with members of the Military Programming staff carrying out their work at the Armoury. The Magazine’s armourer will be cleaning and repairing muskets on the site several days a week, and will be joined by other military interpreters casting lead bullets, doing maintenance work on artillery and, with the help of guests, transferring muskets between the Armoury and Magazine.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, carpenters will be constructing a workshop and a storage building on the south end of the lot. The workshop will be a multi-purpose building, used seasonally, and for special projects. One such project is the production of gun carriages, which involves the wheelwrights preparing the carriage’s wood components while, next door, the blacksmiths make iron hardware to assemble and mount the guns. A gin will be built in the yard, enabling workmen to lift heavy artillery pieces on and off of the carriages.
We will include other military activity that we know was carried out at the Armoury, including leather work, some canvas work, and even the making of bone button blanks for uniforms.
Activity on the site will be increasing as we move into the spring season, with additional activity in the summer and fall. Our anticipated grand opening will be in mid-November. Stay tuned as programming evolves.
- Contributed by Tim Sutphin, Director, Music, Military and Evening Programs, and Kenneth Schwarz, Blacksmith, Master of the Shop.
February 11, 2013
There is some activity in the Armoury kitchen this week that may attract viewer attention. The clay floor is being pulled up, and a new clay floor is being applied. In this blog post Matt Webster explains the process, why we’ve had to undertake this step, and what we’re learning about 18th-century construction methods.
The Armoury is one of those unique projects that you wait and hope for; it combines research, traditional materials, and construction techniques all in an effort to reconstruct a historically accurate site. It is an opportunity to apply years of research and see how these buildings come together, and how the materials function. Sometimes it works perfectly, but sometimes we have more to learn and need to adjust our approach. The Armoury kitchen floor is such a case.
As discussed in an earlier blog post (“Installing the Kitchen Floor or ‘How Do We Know?’” -March 31st 2011), portions of the Armoury kitchen floor were uncovered by archaeologists in 2010, allowing architectural historians to take and analyze samples. From this we learned that t the mixture for the floor was 4 parts clay, 2 parts sand, ¾ parts quick lime, and 1/10 part brick dust. What we do not know is how the material was applied or if there was an additional finish application to the surface. There simply was not enough evidence to help us answer these questions.
Now, two years after the floor was placed, we have seen how it has worn which has helped answer some of our questions. When we first installed the clay floor, it was done in several sections. This allowed us to make smaller batches of material and made finishing the surface easier. Observing the wear on the floor, the junctions between the sections have deteriorated quickly. The floor is deteriorating much faster in these areas, indicating that when the original floor was placed (sometime around 1760), it was done in one large application. The large batch of material was dumped onto the floor and troweled as one uniform surface, not several independent sections. We will be removing approximately three to four inches of the current floor and replace it using this technique.
The second problem we have seen is the floors inability to withstand hundreds of shuffling feet. Granted, one year of visitation likely equals the amount of traffic the original floor saw in its entire lifetime, but we still need to solve the problem. The floor samples collected by archaeologists are likely not the finished surface, but close to the bottom of the original floor, so we would not see evidence of a finish. It is also unlikely that traces of any finish materials would have survived even if we had the upper layers. Period recipes list primarily organic materials such as egg whites, blood, and linseed oil applications for finishing floors. All of these materials would have deteriorated and any trace would have been lost long ago, even if the upper layers had survived. We have decided to apply linseed oil as our finish surface, and are currently testing a panel to see how it will work.
It is simple to look at the written recipe or the results of the analysis and say we know how a period appropriate floor was made. It is not until we actually try to replicate the process that we truly understand how it was done. That is what makes this process so fascinating and a learning experience for all of us.
Contributed by Matt Webster, Director of Historic Architectural Resources
Update: February 25, 2013
Jason, Josh, and Kenneth are making rapid progress on the kitchen floor. The old floor has been removed, new clay has been added, leveled, and smoothed, and soon it will be sealed with linseed oil finish. What follows is a long period of drying…not the stuff of exciting webcam coverage. The images below should help you to visualize the progress so far.
Funded by a generous gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr., of Big Horn, Wyoming.