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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
The Mount Vernon distillery site
Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon.

Ask an Archaeologist
The dig is now over, here are some of your questions!

How did you know about this site?
Do you ever dig with metal detectors?
What steps do you take to develop an excavation plan?
What is the social history of distilling spirits?
Is there any indication where GW's whiskey was going?
What are the dimensions of the copper still?
What variety of whiskey did General Washington distill?
Are you looking for macrobotanical remains in your flotation samples?
How was water was brought to and distributed through the distillery?
Are the farm reports available for the public to view?
Does rainfall hinder your progress?
Does your excavating end when the ground freezes?
Bone diggers, how hard is the work every day?
I am glad to see someone has finally dug the distillery site.

How did you know about this site?

We knew about the site of George Washington's distillery through a variety of lines of evidence. Specifically, the distillery was written about in historical documents. George Washington wrote a number of letters to relatives, friends, and businessmen that reference it. There was also an 1803 insurance document for the Gristmill/Distillery complex with a schematic drawing of the building.

So there was documentary evidence, but there was also an archaeological excavation of the mill and distillery done by the state of Virginia in the 1930s. After this, the distillery site was filled in with dirt and represented by a brick outline. It was re-discovered by Mount Vernon archaeologists in 1997.--Eleanor Breen

Do you ever dig with metal detectors? How do you date things you find with a metal detector?

Your question about metal detectors is an interesting one. At Mount Vernon, we do not use metal detectors to find metal artifacts or archaeological sites. Instead, we use a combination of shovel test survey, test unit excavation, and block excavation to identify and explore the archaeological resources in combination with the historical documentary record.

One problem with using a metal detector to identify buried metal artifacts is that when the metal is dug up, the context, or what archaeologists call provenience, is lost. After the artifact is dug out of the ground, its relationship with the soil layer and surrounding artifacts is lost therefore making it impossible to understand how or when the artifact was deposited.

In terms of dating artifacts found using a metal detector, historical archaeologists generally date artifacts in two ways--absolute dating and relative dating. Absolute dating is used when the manufacture date of a particular object is know. For example, creamware (a refined earthenware ceramic type) was manufactured in England beginning around ca. 1775. Dating metal objects based on known manufacture dates is much more difficult when compared to ceramic artifacts for a variety of reasons. This is when archaeologists employ relative dating techniques to determine the age of artifacts, and the context (or provenience) becomes of crucial importance. Often metal objects by themselves cannot be dated--instead the date of the soil layer from which it was excavated can be determined based on its position in relation to other layers. The ceramics (or possibly other artifact types) found in that soil layer also help to date the metal object. So as I mentioned before, one major problem with using a metal detector to find artifacts is that the context is lost once that object is dug out of the ground. The metal object is removed from the surrounding soil and the other artifacts. The ability to date the metal or to determine how or why it was deposited there becomes impossible.--Eleanor Breen

What steps do you take to develop an excavation plan?

There are two well-written books that discuss the development of a research design/excavation plan. One is Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology (Ashmore and Sharer, 1996). The chapters entitled "How Archaeology Works" and "Fieldwork" go over the stages of archaeological research. The second resource I would point you towards is Historical Archaeology (Orser and Fagan, 1995). There are three relevant chapters in this book: "Historical Site Survey and Location," "Pre-excavation Fieldwork: Documents, Interviews, Buildings," and "Archaeological Fieldwork: Field and Laboratory."--Eleanor Breen

I am curious about the social history of distilling spirits. Can you tell me what demographic, historically, drank liquor? What were the views of spirits during Washington's day? How common are such sites?

There is a fascinating history of distilled spirits in the United States. In the early 1800s, alcohol consumption was at the highest in US history. Whiskey was the distilled spirit of choice, replacing rum during the American Revolution, because rum was an English import. Whiskey could be made locally and therefore was patriotic. The high consumption rates spurned the beginning of the temperance movement, ending with Prohibition in the 1920s. Why was alcohol consumption so high? W.J. Rorabaugh, author of "The Alcoholic Republic," suggests that social upheaval following the revolution was a contributing factor. Also, alcohol was thought to be a healthful drink. Especially in places were the water was not safe to drink and milk spoiled quickly without refrigeration, alcohol was a safe alternative. Alcohol consumption was common in all demographic groups.

Washington probably did not drink much, if any, of his whiskey. His distillery was a commercial distillery. He sold his whiskey to merchants in Alexandria, Virginia.

This is the first excavation of an eighteenth century whiskey distillery, so I would have to say these sites are pretty rare. Our focus in this excavation has been on the building and the process of distilling informs how the building was set up. These are our main research goals because we intend to rebuild the distillery. Although, we are always open to any new research and ideas!

I would really recommend Rorabaugh's book, "The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition" if you are interested in the social history of alcohol in the United States.--Laura Seifert

I thought I would speak to the portion of your question about GW's thoughts on alcohol consumption. He advocated moderation. As a plantation manager, GW often had to deal with overindulgence of alcohol on the part of those who worked for him. At Mount Vernon, he cautioned a worker against drunkenness because "by degrees it renders a person feeble and not only unable to serve others, but to help himself." We do know that drinking liquor was part of his everyday life and while in Pennsylvania, a place he called the "Country of Whiskey," he "made use of that liquor for his drink."--Eleanor Breen

Is there any indication where GW's whiskey was going?

Two Farm Ledgers serve to record the transactions of the distillery. The first, 1797-1798, documents the creations and beginning of the distillery, while the later ledger, 1797-1801, details the two complete years Washington owned the operation. The ledgers record such details as the distillery's customers, types of whiskey sold, prices paid for whiskey, items purchased for the distillery, where these items were purchased, and grain purchased for the distillery. These ledgers were transcribed and computerized by two history students--one for her MA thesis, one for her PhD dissertation. While these documents are still under undergoing analysis, I can summarize the patterns we've seen in terms of who is buying the whiskey. A merchant in Alexandria by the last name Gilpin is the only definitive consumer who seems to be buying the whiskey for resale. The other customers seem, at this stage of our analysis, to be purchasing the whiskey for personal consumption. The quantity of whiskey that these customers are purchasing is much smaller than that purchased by Gilpin leading us to this conclusion.

Visitors to the site often wonder if we're finding whiskey bottles. GW did not bottle any of his whiskey. It was sold either in large wooden barrels, or smaller receptacles, but there was no official bottling.--Eleanor Breen

The copper still you have pictured on the top of the page is very similar to a ceramic one found in a seventeenth century context at Martin's Hundred. What are the dimensions of the copper still?

The still stands about 4 feet high. You made an interesting comparison between the Smithsonian still and the one excavated from Martin's Hundred (see Martin's Hundred by Ivor Noel Hume, 1979, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, pp. 101-102 for more information). The one housed in the Smithsonian is bigger and later (dating to 1787) and most likely just used for distilling whiskey, but the idea and engineering principles are the same.--Eleanor Breen

What variety of firewater did General Washington distill? Did he make blended whiskey--spelled, by the way, with an 'e'--or did he make the old world's specialty, single malt scotch, spelled 'whisky' with no 'e'?

No recipe for Washington's whiskey exists. The Weekly Farm Reports do record the amount of grain transferred from the gristmill to the distillery and the 9 month period April 1798-January 1799, provides us with a good indication overall of what was distilled. From this data, we think the mash bill was probably about 65% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malt. The malt was probably malted barley.

We know very little about how the whiskey was processed. We know it was distilled multiple times and there was a cellar for storage although the idea of storage seems to be for safe-keeping until it was sold, not for aging. Some was rectified which might include blending of various distillations.

The two account ledgers which document the distillery's transactions record a variety of whiskies sold including: whiskey, common, rectified, rectified 4th proof, whiskie strong proof, fine rectified whiskey, rye whiskey, double distilled, and spirits. From the account ledgers we also know the distillery was making apple brandy and peach brandy.

Washington's probate inventory records cinnamon whiskey, persimmon brandy, peach brandy, apple brandy, rectified apple brandy, and plain whiskey, stored in the basement of the Mount Vernon mansion when Washington died in 1799. We assume these were being used by the Washington family and may provide an indication of what President Washington served in his house.

During the first three month period of operation, March-May 1797, wheat was the primary grain distilled. It appears they stopped distilling wheat, once the corn and rye crops were harvested that year. Wheat would have had more value sold as flour or sold unprocessed, than as whiskey.

In the eighteenth century, spelling was not as refined as today and in the historical literature we see Washington's whiskey referred to as "whiskie", "whiskey", and "whiski." The variations in spelling did not translate into distinctions between the products.--Esther White

Are you looking for macrobotanical remains in your flotation samples? And if so, what are you finding that can add to your hypothesis about whiskey distilling? Are you also conducting pollen and phytolith studies in conjunction with your flotation work?

We are taking flotation samples from features such as drains, which moved fresh water and waste (slop) throughout the distillery. We hope to recover macroremains such as the grains used in distilling. Therefore, flotation will tell us not only about the botanical material used in distilling itself, but also about the layout of the building (we do not expect those drains that carried fresh water to contain macrobotanical remains from distilling, but the drains that carried waste should contain such material). We are also collecting pollen and phytolith samples, as well as water screening all soil.--Laura Shick

I'm interested in how water was brought to and distributed through the distillery.

Water is one of the main ingredients in the distilling process, not only used in actually making the whiskey, but also used to clean out the stills and the mash tubs and to cool and condense the liquor after it has been evaporated off the grain mixture. We do believe that the distillery was purposely placed down slope of the millrace in order to facilitate the movement of water from the millrace to the distillery. Also, the topography of the land where the distillery is situated slopes southeast, towards the creek. This would have facilitated the movement of water and slop through the building and down to the creek (or possibly to the hog pens). In regards to the spillway as it exists on the millrace today, it is a modern reconstruction. The millrace outflow that we've identified archaeologically is not related to the modern one. We are unsure of when this archaeological feature was used and filled in, but we currently do not believe that it is related to the distilling activities. This is because there do not appear to be drains running from the outflow into the building. We think it would have served as an emergency outflow for water when the millrace was overflowing.

We're not sure exactly how water came into the building, but we do have evidence for a series of wooden troughs, and earthen and brick drains, as you mentioned, some of which most likely transported water from the water sources (the millrace and the well) through the building. Troughs were timber and placed in channels dug in the ground (Farm Reports 2/4/97). Given the changes in elevation from the millrace to the distillery they were also probably above ground, perhaps with wooden supports, similar to a flume. They carried water into the distillery and at least one was designated the "trough race" although it appears multiple ones brought the water into the building (Farm Reports 2/11/97). Other named or specific troughs included the slop trough (Farm Reports 2/11/97), "5 troughs under ground to carry the water from the [worm or wort] tubs" (Farm Reports 11/4/97), the troughs to the worm tubs (Farm Reports 2/18/98), and away from the worm tubs (Farm Reports 2/18/98), from the well into the distillery (Farm Reports 6/2/98), the hog trough (Farm Reports 3/31/98) and the cow trough (Farm Reports 11/10/98). We have yet to determine archaeologically which troughs are which, and we many not have found them all to date.

There does appear to have been a need for additional water to service the distillery evidenced in the fact that a well was dug beginning in May of 1798 (Farm Reports 5/12/98, 5/19/98, 5/26/98, 6/2/98). The larger still house was functioning at this time and perhaps the water demands to operate five stills and a boiler were more than the millrace could supply. Since keeping the mill running had always been a priority, and since the distillery relied on the mill to supply the grist needed for distilling, competition for the limited water available from Dogue Run was not advantageous. The new well had a pump and troughs to "lead the water in still house" (Farm Reports 5/19/98, 5/26/98, 6/2/98). It is not known which water supply functioned as the primary supply and which as the backup. We did not find a well in our archaeological survey, but a well is located next to the miller's cottage, up slope from the distillery.

At this point, we are not sure how water will be carried through the reconstructed building. Dennis and Esther have just entered into consultations with the architectural historians Orlando Rideout and Willie Graham. They are working towards a draft architectural rendering of the distillery and will be answering these types of questions over the next many months.--Eleanor Breen

The farm reports seem to have a wealth of information. Are these available for the public to view?

Washington began requiring Weekly Farm Reports in 1786 and while some years are better documented than others they are a tremendous source of information, not only for the distillery but as a record of work on the entire plantation. Each of the five farm's overseers was required to submit a detailed report to the plantation manager who then compiled them into a report for Washington. In many cases, individual slaves are named, the number of days it took to complete a task is recorded, and we are able to see the individual character of each farm.

Some of the Weekly Farm Reports can be viewed online at the Library of Congress's website, www.loc.gov. There is a large searchable collection of Washington Papers within the American Memory Collection.

The reports for April 1797 are printed in The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series vol. 1, March-Dec. 1797. W.W. Abbot editor, Charlottesville and London: University Press of VA, 1998.

Mount Vernon's library has all surviving Reports. The library is open to the public by appointment only.--Esther White

Does rainfall hinder your progress by messing it up? Or does it help by washing and uncovering items? And do you ever have a "roof" when it's boiling hot and sunny?

Oh do archaeologists love to talk, speculate, and complain about the weather. I guess because it really affects what we do. Rainfall is a big problem for the site, but also for the paperwork because we record everything we do in the field. We cover the site up every night with black plastic and sandbags to prevent water damage. If it begins to rain fairly hard during a workday, we will close up the site and come back to the lab. Many people do not know that for every hour of fieldwork, there is about 4 hours of lab work that must get done. So the rain hinders our excavation progress, but does not halt the overall work of processing and analyzing a site. We do have a small tent that we can set up during the day to provide the archaeologists with relief from the sun, and also to prevent that area of the site from "baking out." Just as a site can be too wet, it can also get very dry and the dirt cracks if it is exposed to the sun for a significant amount of time.--Eleanor Breen

Does your excavating end when the ground freezes and re-open with spring thaw?

Yes, excavations end when the ground freezes. The site is covered with sandbags and tarps to protect it from the winter weather. But of course there is plenty of lab work to do during the winter to take care of all the artifacts we found over the summer.--Mandy Ranslow

What are the future plans for the dig? Will you continue to dig throughout the fall and winter? Will the site ever be actually "finished"?

We will continue to dig through the fall - we usually close up the site sometime in November. We hope to have the bulk of the excavations done by then. The distillery will be reconstructed beginning in 2005, and next year the architectural plans will be finalized. We may be back out at the distillery site after this year to monitor the construction activities to ensure that no archaeological remains are impacted during this process.

There is so much more to be learned about the distillery and the gristmill complex as a whole. Our excavations have concentrated on the building and just a few feet outside of the foundation. While this is a start, we do have unanswered questions about the layout of the landscape further outside the building. For instance, where was the livestock situated? And where was the cooperage, which served as the distillery before the large stone structure was built? In this regard, it is hard to say that the excavations will ever be finished. As long as we keep coming up with new research questions, the process of excavation and discovery will never be complete!--Eleanor Breen

Bone diggers, how hard is the work every day?

I'm not sure you could categorize the archaeologists at Mount Vernon as ‘bone diggers.' Most of the sites we have excavated over the past 20 years relate to the colonial plantation owned and operated by George Washington. These sites include the blacksmith's shop, the dung repository, the vineyard enclosure, and the basement of the Mansion. Two of our sites, though, were particularly rich in faunal remains, or animal bones. One was the House for Families' cellar. The deposits in this brick-lined cellar, associated with a structure built for Mansion house slaves, contained an amazing assemblage of fish and mammal bones relating to the diet of the Mount Vernon slaves in the second half of the 18th century. More than 24,000 bones were unearthed! Another site that contained abundant faunal evidence is the South Grove midden, located in a grassy area south of the kitchen. It appears that in a natural depression in the yard, decades worth of trash accumulated from the Mansion and kitchen, including a fantastic amount of faunal evidence.

Many visitors ask the archaeologists if we ever find skeletons. We have not excavated any human remains at Mount Vernon. This sub-discipline of archaeology is called human osteology.--Eleanor Breen

This is not new. I worked at that Grist Mill in 1991, and I am glad to see someone has finally dug the distillery site. I always wondered about that place.

You are absolutely correct; the fact that Washington had a distillery and the location of the still house is not new. We think the location was always part of the local lore and the site was uncovered in 1932 when the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the property. At that time the State hoped to reconstruct more than just the gristmill and miller's cottage. Plans called for the distillery, cooperage, livestock pens and barns to be rebuilt. I think both the economic condition combined with the attitude towards alcohol at that time (prohibition was repealed in 1933), made it difficult for Virginia to proceed with their plan.

After the Park was opened, the path of the distillery's foundation was outlined with brick and an interpretive sign placed at the site. Today, with the management of the property under Historic Mount Vernon there is a renewed interest in this important industrial site. It fits well with our mission to interpret all facets of George Washington's life. The mill and distillery complement visitor's understanding of Washington's career as a farmer and a successful businessman, two themes prevalent at Mount Vernon.--Esther White

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