This week ended more or less as it began, with the volunteers and crew bailing and briefly opening the site, then closing up shop as torrents of rain swept across eastern Virginia and dumped oceans of water all over us, the site, and our hopes of digging at the distillery. Nonetheless, the crew has been gainfully (and muddily) employed in useful tasks all week long.
Unfortunately, even at this moment a truly alarming thunderstorm is frenziedly whipping around 150-year-old oak trees and producing prodigious quantities of moisture. This bodes ill for tomorrow's volunteer day. The Farmers' Almanac suggests four out of every five days will be rainy along the east coast this summer. That's been fairly accurate so far, and we fear a continuation of our apparently endless bailing, bailing, bailing! Hopefully we'll eventually get to further explore the robber's trenches, foundation walls, and other features that remained undisturbed this week.
Is it a Cellar?
by Eleanor Breen
A mystery feature! I'm working on an excavation plan for a large rubble deposit located on the north end of the building. At the end of last season, we exposed this large feature and began to formulate hypotheses on its nature and function. Could it just be a thin destruction layer associated with the building's collapse? Or is the rubbly soil filling in some deeper depression, possibly a cellar?
When the rain didn't deter us this week, we worked to clean, photograph, and map the large rubble deposit. This feature, which we're calling the north rubble field for lack of a more specific interpretation, is about 10-by-20 feet. The soil matrix tends to be a brown loam with frequent pieces of sandstone, mortar, and carbon. While we've mapped over 20 soils in the feature, most had a large amount of building material. There is also darker soil and carbon running north-south within the rubble area.
Our working theory is that the feature is possibly the fill of a cellar. But how do we know the distillery even had a cellar? And how would the cellar have been used? Here we turn to the documentary sources to look for evidence of a cellar at the distillery. A cellar is mentioned three times in 1798 farm reports: "planing, rabbiting and laying down the floor of the 2 rooms over the cellar" on February 18; "cleaning out the cellar" on February 25; and "cleaning out the cellars at the distillery" on March 3. These entries certainly lend credence to the existence of a cellar, but its function, location, and construction time and type are not detailed in these brief mentions.
We're able to ascertain the dates of the distillery's construction from the farm reports. During the week of October 14, 1797, workers are "digging the foundation of the distillery," and workers are "finishing the foundation of the distillery" the next week. The building's frame is up by the week of December 16. If there is a cellar, when was it put in? Prior to the erection of the building, after the foundation is built? These are questions we should be able to answer through the archaeology.
In the eighteenth century, a cellar's walls and floor might have been brick, stone, or even earthen. They could have been many feet deep or very shallow, depending on their purpose. One can imagine many storage purposes for a distillery cellar, including a place to store empty wooden barrels, grain to be distilled, or barreled whiskey to be sold. Plantation manager James Anderson wrote on June 21, 1797, that "a strong cellar must be at hand to Lodge the Spirits in...." If Anderson had his way, we should be able to find that strong cellar!
How are we going to figure this all out? Time to get dirty. We've taken pre-excavation photographs, and we're mapping the soils in unit 691, the first square we've chosen to excavate. We're starting here because it'll give us profiles along the east, west, and south walls. We then plan to open unit 640, diagonal from 690, and likely unit 740. This will give us a checkerboard excavation pattern. Our intent is to get the most profile views of the stratigraphy in this depression that we can.
We promise to keep you posted on the north rubble field excavations. Now, if we can just get a sunny day to actually do some digging!!