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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
View of the feature before excavation
Laura excavates a tin can in a stratum deposited the third quadrant of the 1930s feature.
Post-excavation view of the first quadrant of the 1930s intrusion, exposing what may be remains of the malt kiln
Profile view of the fourth quadrant

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Laura Seifert

Re-digging an Old Dig

Mount Vernon archaeologists aren't the first to dig George Washington's distillery. In the early 1930s, the Commonwealth of Virginia bought the seven-acre property (see Esther's post) and excavated Washington's mill, distillery, and miller's cottage. Excavation back then consisted of simply stripping the soil from the foundation and other features. We have since made many advances in the ways we dig and recover information, and we hope to learn more about the distillery through our excavations.

The area I've spent most of my time excavating of late is a large feature on the western side of the distillery building that was created by the 1930s excavators while exploring the foundation. They came across a stone extension that was presumably attached to the outer, or western, side of the foundation at one point. They dug around the extension and mapped it. My job is to re-dig the area, being sure not to mix these later deposits with any from the eighteenth century. What makes the job complicated is that the soil of the feature is stratified, so each stratum must be removed separately and be recorded on its own set of paperwork. Strata contain artifacts used at a site, and soils deposited in the 1930s are no exception. We've uncovered tin cans, beer cans, and even a whiskey bottle. These artifacts illustrate what the excavation was like in the 1930s!

There are several steps to investigating the 1930s feature and not all actually involve digging. First we photographed the top of it and drew a map in plan view. The feature is large, so we divided it into quarters. We excavated one section to draw a profile map of the layers. This is why we divide a feature, so we can see it in profile before digging it all out. We also take photographs after each section is removed and after the feature has been completely excavated. So far, I have dug three quarters of it entirely and have started on the fourth. It's taken me five months to get this far, though it has proved to be well worth the wait! At the bottom of the 1930s intrusion, I've uncovered what appears to be a stone extension to the building. It has a two-foot-wide heat-altered brick base contained by thick sandstone walls.

Based on research I did this winter, we believe this stone extension is the malt kiln. Malt is germinated grain that has been dried. We know from farm reports that Washington had a malt kiln and a malt house, the building where grain was germinated. Farm reports also tell us that the malt house and kiln were built after the distillery's main building, suggesting they were extensions or even separate structures. Since most of the historical references are vague, the archaeology is particularly important here. Only continued excavation and careful recording will answer our question of whether this extension is really the malt kiln.

Visit the bulletin board if you have any questions!

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