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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
Kim removing snow off the south lane site this winter. The mansion kitchen is in to the left and the Potomac River is in the background.
Archaeologists excavating at the south lane site in the snow. The mansion is in the background, as is the colonnade leading to the kitchen.
Laura logging bags, George (a volunteer) and Kim washing, and Brian reading the latest issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.
Bagging and tagging the artifacts after they have been washed and dried. This stage of artifact processing occurs before cataloguing.
Jen working on the GIS map of the distillery...with her coffee!

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Eleanor Breen

Winter at Mount Vernon

Welcome to our first Dig Diary! We are excited to use these diary entries to keep you posted on the progress of our excavations at George Washington's distillery. This post summarizes our activities this winter leading up to the 2003 field season.

What do we need 50 hay bales, over 200 sand bags, and two dump trucks loaded with sand for? At Mount Vernon, we winterize the distillery site from November through April when we are not excavating. This is done to protect the soil deposits and features from the winter weather. We stabilize the walls of the excavations with hay bales and sand bags, fill the excavated features with sand, cover the site with multiple layers of black plastic, secure a final layer of resistant blue tarp into the ground with nails, and cover the edges with sand bags.

We protect the archaeological site from the harsh winter elements, but what about the archaeologists? Mount Vernon's archaeology department digs year-round (unless it's really, really cold or precipitating). This winter we kept busy conducting surveys associated with upcoming construction and research projects. We surveyed a rectangular grassy area at the site of our new orientation building to ensure that no archaeological resources will be impacted during construction. We excavated along the south lane, the road leading from the kitchen to the stables, to locate the original wooden fence bounding the yard and lane that was put in sometime prior to 1785. This fence will be reconstructed once we're done.

Just because the distillery site is tucked safely away for the winter doesn't mean that we stop thinking about it! One of the major activities we (and most archaeologists, for that matter) work on during the winter is processing the artifacts excavated from previous field seasons. This entails washing, drying, re-bagging, labeling, and cataloguing. The artifacts from the distillery are predominantly architectural in nature--this means we spend most of our time washing bricks, sandstone, schist, cobbles, and mortar!

In addition to artifact processing, the field crew members also spent their time writing up the areas they excavated in 2002. This entailed compiling Harris Matrices, pulling together maps of the excavation units and profiles of the unit walls, describing the features and soil deposits exposed during the field season, and making some interpretations as to the nature of the features and the depositional processes that accounted for the overlying strata. These miniature site reports gave everyone valuable experience in thinking critically about excavations and how to convey this analysis in writing.

Since we finally exposed the building's footprint and what we feel are eighteeenth-century distilling features, we decided to make an overall site map. We compiled maps from all 45 ten-foot square units excavated since 1999 and made a low-tech version of the site map by xeroxing and cutting and taping together the unit maps. Then we scanned the maps and digitized them into AutoCAD 2000i, a drawing software. This created a map of the entire site as it looked after the 2002 field season. Jennifer Strong Ebbert then imported the AutoCAD maps into ArchView GIS 3.2. and produced a site map that we can manipulate and use to analyze spatial data. Looking at these, we were able to get the larger picture of the features and their relationships within and just outside the distillery foundation. GIS also gives us the ability to integrate the map of the distillery into existing maps.

Then for the fun part... As we studied the site map and began to formulate hypotheses on the patterns noted and the nature of the different features, we decided to hold monthly distillery luncheons to discuss people's thoughts and interpretations about what the previous field seasons' work had uncovered. At Mount Vernon, the archaeological process is truly about team work as archaeologists, volunteers, our restoration manager, our associate librarian, and even a spouse attended the luncheons for stimulating conversation and great local Thai food from Keo's. The topics included: distillery references in George Washington's farm reports; the linear features that run in various directions within and outside the foundation (could they be drains, troughs, or flues?); the distilling equipment and process--how the building worked; and an AutoCAD/GIS presentation. The product of these discussions, combined with additional extensive research on three period texts about distilling, culminated in a paper written by Jennifer Strong Ebbert and Laura Seifert presented at the MAACs in 2003. Their paper, "Still Here: Reconstructing George Washington's Whiskey Distillery from the Archaeology, Documents and Industry Context," appeared in a general historical archaeology session along with papers by other Mount Vernon staff including Kim Christensen, Dennis Pogue, and myself. Our topics ranged from the archaeology and reconstruction of the south lane, to the archaeology of greenhouses and similar buildings, to the trash excavated from a deposit located south of the mansion, respectively.

At the beginning of April, we headed back out to the distillery to uncover and clean the site. The past month was spent removing deposits in the southeast corner of the building (see Kim's post) to undercover the corner of the foundation and along the western edge of the excavation extent to fully expose the edge of the foundation (see Jen's post).

In the coming weeks and months, we plan to report on our latest discoveries at the site of George Washington's whiskey distillery. If you have questions or comments about the archaeology, please post them on the bulletin board, where you can interact with Mount Vernon's archaeologists!

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