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Archaeology's Interactive Dig
April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
Dan, Lacey, and Jen spray down the feature and take opening elevations.
GIS detail of feature
The south side excavations with the mill and millrace in background
Present-day millrace waste and gate

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Jennifer Strong Ebbert

Complex Connections

As excavation progresses on the large rubble field on the north side, archaeologists are beginning to tackle a large linear feature on the site's southern extent. This feature isn't within the footprint of the distillery, it's five feet outside and runs parallel to the southern foundation wall (see planview detail). At first glance, it seems related to the distillery because of its proximity and orientation; however, there are no visible physical connections between this feature and the building. It instead appears to be related to the millrace farther upslope.

The distillery was a late addition to the already profitable gristmill complex--the mill and millrace, a cottage for the miller and his family, a cooperage, animal pens and sheds, and possibly slave quarters. Washington built and fitted his mill for commercial use in 1770 and 1771. This was part of his shift from tobacco to grain, a more economically sound crop. The plantation was growing an abundance of grain by 1797. Plantation manager James Anderson suggested adding a distillery to turn this grain into another product. The decision to build the distillery within the existing complex along the edge of Dogue Creek was a deliberate choice. The gristmill ground the raw ingredients for distillation and having it nearby saved time and labor. Water is also a primary ingredient in the distilling process, and proximity to a major water source such as the millrace was essential. The distillery was located downhill from the millrace so that gravity would carry water into the building.

We do have some clues to the nature of the linear feature we're beginning to excavate. It appears as a dark stain in the soil similar, though larger, to drains and troughs we've found throughout the distillery. It also appears to originate farther uphill (west) toward the millrace. During the 1997 survey, a five-by-five test unit was dug upslope from this feature, approximately eight feet from the edge of the millrace. We found the edge of a ditch with a cobblestone bottom running perpendicular to the millrace in that unit, and our feature could be a continuation of this ditch.

If we look at the 1932 reconstruction of the millrace, we see a gate and a ditch (see picture). Washington would have had a similar overflow or waste on his millrace to allow excess water to be channeled out, and our feature may be the remnant of such a channel. As usual, we're collecting the artifacts from the soils filling this feature, but we're also collecting the numerous pebbles and cobbles. These are not necessarily artifacts (i.e. altered or deposited by humans), but they may help tell the story of how the waste--if that's what it was--was filled in.

This feature runs through all five southern units, and we're attempting to date it relative to the surrounding features. Digging one unit at a time, we are creating profile views or cross sections of the layers. This offers us a sneak peak of the adjacent unit and a cross-check of how the current unit was excavated. All of this information will help us determine how, when, and why it ceased to be used. As with all archaeology, our clues lie in the complex connections of features, soil, artifacts, and everything else that makes up the archaeological record.

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