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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
The distillery site as it appeared in 1999
The "brick pad" excavated in 2000

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Deborah Whaley

Archaeology Journal

The following are excerpts from the personal excavation journal of Deborah Whaley, one of our long-time volunteers. Deb has been a fixture at the Saturday excavation days since 1998, and we thank her for allowing us to use her writings here.

I started volunteering at Mount Vernon in April 1998. I'd always been interested in archaeology, but I never knew you could work as a volunteer. I heard about Mount Vernon's program, and it sounded like a great way to spend a few Saturdays a month.

When I first joined the archaeology department, they were excavating right outside the main house in the area where a central air conditioning and heating unit was to be installed. It was a nice place to start, very rich in personal artifacts. I remember finding a lot of pipe stems and Native American artifacts like flakes and fire-cracked rocks. Finding the pipe stems so close to the house made me think of George Washington sitting out on the veranda after dinner on a warm summer evening, having a smoke with friends and enjoying the beautiful view of the river. The Native American artifacts also made me think of everyone that had admired that wonderful view over time. I really fell in love with the Mount Vernon estate that day.

That project ended shortly after I started volunteering, but it really got me excited about digging. There is something wonderful about being outside getting really dirty (like you haven't been since you were a kid) and doing something so physical the sweat just pours off of you. Maybe it has something to do with dressing in conservative banker's suits and sitting at a desk the other five days of my week, but it seems like a good balance.

The following summer was my first year at the distillery, and it seemed like we opened squares endlessly. We did uncover part of the foundation again, and I will never forget uncovering the "brick pad." It was exciting wondering what it could be and following it to see how much area it covered. I think it was the first major feature uncovered that we didn't know existed until we watched it grow, brick by brick, out of the dirt.

I started this journal in 2000, our second season digging at the distillery site and my third summer as a volunteer at Mount Vernon.


Distillery Site (Fairfax County Site #44FX2262)


Returned to the site for the first time since last year. George Washington's distillery is located down the road about three miles from the house near the gristmill on Dogue Creek.

This is my second summer working here and the first time since last fall when the site was uncovered. Luckily, I overslept and missed the fun of bailing stagnant water and removing the rotten hay bales which had been placed in the trenches during the winter months to try and keep the site as protected as possible. The day was spent cleaning the existing exposed squares and opening two new ones. A large number of new volunteers (6-8) showed up and were put to work opening the new squares while Linda, Mike, Jeff, and I cleaned the old squares. The main reason for cleaning the site today was not only to prepare it for the new season, but representatives from a distillery, Brown & Foreman, were visiting on Tuesday. They are a source for possible funding for the project. Altogether it was a very pleasant day; the soil was easy to deal with and moist enough to trowel without being mud. The weather was nice, and the site looked good when we finished.

This site is an ongoing project which will probably take 3 or 4 years. At this time, there are some trenches, a brick pad, and part of the foundation wall exposed, as well as some other interesting features of the original structure.


The most memorable thing about digging at the distillery site today was the oppressive heat. It was a very hot, hazy, muggy day with temperatures in the 90s, which is unseasonably hot for mid-May. I hope this is not an indication of the upcoming summer. I spent most of the day in square 635F, a mixed-clay-fill layer about six inches deep. It contains clay soil, very heavy when wet and cement-like when dry. Today it was fairly moist, but very heavy when transporting to the screens (or maybe it was just the heat that made it seem so heavy). It had a fair number of artifacts--bottle glass, window glass, a few nails, a fragment of a pipe stem, small pottery sherds, but mainly rocks, brick, and mortar.

I worked the square with Linda and one of the new volunteers named Steve. Steve was doing a pretty good job at moving dirt, so I spent a fair amount of time screening. Others opened two additional squares, so I volunteered to make bags for them. Making bags...something I can never quite remember how to do from each time to the next.


A big change in the weather today from last week. I woke up this morning to a very gray, damp day. I had dressed in shorts, but when I got outside I turned around, went back inside and changed into my jeans. Probably in the mid 60s today with a light mist on and off. I got to the site and quite a few people had shown up, considering the weather. Christy, Dwayne, Beatrice (Dwayne and Beatrice are two new Mount Vernon employees I had not met before), Linda, Mike, Hal, Alan, Bob, Luanne, Steve, and Tracy.

I worked in square 633A removing topsoil. This is one of the newly opened squares from last week. I started at one edge of the square working down to the mixed-clay fill that had been exposed in the adjacent square. The clay fill was removed quite easily, and I uncovered a dark rich fill soil with a lot of bricks, mortar, and rubble. Actually quite a few artifacts; glass, nails, a clay pipe stem about 1 1/2 inches long, and a can opener (church-key type). This dark soil cut a definite line across the squares (maybe the outline or foundation to the cooperage, which was possibly beside the distillery).

After our break for lunch, we all decided it was just too cold and damp to continue on for the day, and it was decided we would go to the lab and maybe start some artifact cleaning. Christy gave us a tour of the lab, very interesting. We went through several of the storage drawers and looked at cleaned and labeled artifacts, very different from looking at them when the come out of the ground.

Oh! I also found out the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States is going to contribute $1.25 million for archaeology at the site. Great news for Mount Vernon.


Started the day cleaning square 584E, a mixed-clay layer, but I was really just trying to get a handle on where the outlines of a 1930s pipe runs through the square. Closed out the square by taking closing elevations (we had a little trouble with this until Christy came over and helped), which we recorded in the survey log and the provenience card. We also logged the completion date on the stratum register for the layer. After this was completed we started the provenience card for the next layer, 584F (Pipe Trench), and began the excavation of the trench. The pipe was exposed in the adjacent square so the goal was to follow it down into our square, actually harder than it sounds. But we did manage to complete this task by the end of the day.

It was another hot day, but really not as bad as predicted. The temperature was probably in the upper 80s or low 90s but not as humid as I had expected.


I started digging this morning by cleaning unit 585E. This helped to review what had been done last on the square. I took closing elevations and closed out this layer. We started the paper work on the next layer (F), mapped the square, (first time I had done this) and began removing clean, dark, yellowish brown dirt from an intrusion which included a great deal of fill rubble. I worked the square with Mike and Randy, and we spent most of the day trying to decide on the boundary lines of this intrusion (which may actually be more than one intrusion). One is a very large intrusion that covers several squares; the other appears to be maybe six or seven feet long and about 18 inches wide. We never really reached a conclusion. A lot of building material was taken from the layer--several well-preserved nails, a lot of brick, mortar, small pieces of window glass, small fragments of bone, and oyster shell. It was another hot, humid day in the 90s, partly cloudy, which at least made it bearable. Heavy storm clouds rolled in about 2:00pm and we finished closing up the site about 3:00pm fearing rain. Sure enough, 15 minutes later it was pouring. Very large crowd today, many new volunteers, we'll wait to see who stays.


I helped open a new square (684) today. This is a task I love to avoid, because it means first breaking up and removing the sod. Breaking sod requires a good deal of physical strength, something I really do not have.

Squares are surveyed off in ten-by-ten-foot plots, but when opening a new one they are measured off into four five-by-five-foot squares and the sod and topsoil are removed first--but I have jumped ahead. The first thing done when conducting an excavation is to establish an elevation benchmark. The benchmark for the distillery is a USGS established elevation point located on the step of the gristmill. It is very important to maintain both horizontal and vertical controls while conducting an excavation. After the benchmark elevation is established, a grid of ten-by-ten-foot squares is laid out. To open a new square, spikes (very large nails about 8" long) are driven at five-foot points on all four sides of the square and the center. (The center is found by laying tape measures diagonally crisscrossing the ten-by-ten square.) Shiners reinforce the corner points of the square. The shiners are made by driving additional spikes into the ground at half-foot intervals in a diamond pattern out from the center of each corner point. This leaves a triangulated section when the ground around it has been excavated. The nails are then strung with string (a very heavy pink string is used) making sure to pull the string tight and wrapping it on the inside of each of the nails. This is done to keep the nails from caving inward easily. The sod is then cut with the sharp end of a shovel and removed (easier said than done). It really takes two people to remove a strip of cut sod. One pulling it back, while the other tries to slice the roots with either a shovel or a sharpened trowel. It is backbreaking work! Once the sod is removed, the topsoil is taken out and screened. The topsoil in the first four squares is layer A, B, C, and D. Once the topsoil is removed, each distinctive layer below (soil change) within the square is given a letter label (for example, the next layer may be a mixed-clay fill across the entire square, going down six inches in some spots, and two inches in others. This would be layer E).

Needless to say, removing sod and topsoil took all day. In fact, we never finished removing the topsoil. I worked with Allen, Bob, and Tracy. Allen and I found a nice feature in the corner of the D layer. Esther thought it was maybe a test hole dug during the 1930s.


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