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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
Overview of the foundation's southeast corner, facing north. The stone on the far left is the end of the intact foundation; the robber's trench lies to the right and above it. The wood-lined trough runs from top to bottom, just above the cobble in the lower right corner. The drain feature runs from left to right along the bottom of the photo, with the cobble on the right within it. The features have been truncated by the modern utility trench that is filled in with sand at the top of the photo.
The foundation trench partially excavated in unit 637, facing south. The trench was bisected--that is, half of it was excavated to view a cross-section of the trench. The left part of the trench is fully excavated down to subsoil, while the right side of it is unexcavated.
In situ nails found during excavation of the wood-lined trough in 1999, facing south. These nails, protruding from the top of the decayed wooden trough, secured the top plank to the planks forming the sides.

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Kim Christensen

Where, Oh Where, Has the Corner Gone?

Since opening up the distillery site at the beginning of April, we've been excavating two areas above the eighteenth-century soil layers. My area of focus is the southeastern corner of the building. Over the past few weeks, I've dug 14 small soil layers from around and within this corner of the foundation to better define the location of the corner itself, as well as the route of a wood-lined drainage trough just outside the building. The map of square 634 shows the features I'm discussing in this post, in addition to other soil deposits we intend to explore in the coming months.

[image]This map shows the soil layers and broader features uncovered in the southeastern corner of the foundation. [LARGER IMAGE]

As Esther's write-up of our 1997 survey discussed, we followed a property-wide shovel test pit survey of the gristmill complex with the excavation of several five-by-five-foot units. One of these units was located just south of this corner, missing the foundation trench by inches. In 2000, we began excavation of unit 634, which overlies the corner of the building. We uncovered the eastern end of the lowest course of the foundation, but where the corner should have been the large river cobbles and mortar we expected did not appear. We didn't excavate this unit further at that time, so it remained "high" until excavations were resumed this month.

Our recent excavation in this area has shown us where the corner of the foundation was located. As you can see on the map, the foundation trench runs north to south through the unit. Because we didn't discover foundation stones here, we call this feature a "robber's trench". The absence of stones in this part of the building (as well as along the entire eastern side and most of the northern side) suggests that they were removed and likely reused when the distillery was dismantled in the early 1800s. The sandstone and mortar rubble currently filling the foundation trench accumulated after the stones were removed. This fill will be the next layer we remove here. In 1999, a 20-foot-long portion of the foundation trench was excavated in units 586 and 587. Beneath the dense rubble fill, we discovered a silty layer in the bottom of the trench that possibly showed the outline of where the foundation stones had been before being removed. It'll be interesting to see what we find once the trench fill is excavated in other areas this summer.

Besides the foundation trench, we also know that there was a wood-lined drainage trough that ran parallel to the east foundation wall, less than a foot outside the building itself. We think it was the final collection point for the extensive system of troughs and drains that ran through the building. These interior channels moved liquids involved in the distilling process, from bringing fresh water into the building to moving waste products (i.e. slop) out. The wood-lined trough appears to be an end point of this system. Our current hypothesis is that this trough carried water away from the distillery to the nearby creek, but we don't know yet exactly how the drains we've found inside the building relate to it.

A 15-foot-long section of the trough was fully excavated in 1999. Last season, we traced the trough's path along the northern end of the eastern side of the building in units 588 and 589. Interestingly, we found some preserved wood, and nails in situ within the trench, showing how the wooden planks forming the bottom, walls, and cover of the trough were nailed together. (Mount Vernon's weekly farm reports record "ripping the cover of the troughs.") I've traced the path of the trough in unit 634 this season and later will excavate the trough itself, hopefully uncovering similar in situ nails and perhaps some evidence of exactly what was flowing through the trough.

Another feature we uncovered was a drain that appears to come out of the corner of the building and intersect the wood-lined trough perpendicularly. We've only just exposed the soil filling in this channel, so we're still unsure how it relates to the wood-lined trough. This feature matches up with another drain uncovered in previous years of excavation that tracks eastward outside the building to the limit of our excavation area. Because it appears to come right out of the foundation itself, we're also not sure how it relates to what was going on in the interior of the building. Hopefully the excavation of this channel and the wood-lined trough will shed some light on how both of these drainage features were used in the eighteenth-century distilling process. (Look for a more in-depth discussion of the drains we've found in the distillery, what they were made of, and how they related to the distilling process in future posts.)

For now, we've left the southeastern corner of the foundation so we can focus on other parts of the site. Once we move on to the excavation of features from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--the robber's trench, wood-lined trough, and other drains--things should get interesting. We hope to be able to reconstruct the system of drains, troughs, and other features which aided the distillery's efficient operation. Stay tuned for updates on the excavation of these and other features throughout the season.

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