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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
The first ten squares opened at the distillery. The mill is to the left, the miller's cottage above.
Thane excavates a gravel-filled trench in 1999. We found a wooden trough set into a ditch here.
In cross section, the wooden trough appears as a slightly darker "U" shape.
The trowel points to a nail that held the wooden trough together. Two additional nails are visible to the left.
The brick paving and western foundation of the distillery (facing north) uncovered during the 1999 season.
Volunteers JoAnn Carpenter and Donald Ferlong expose the southern foundation of the distillery in 2000. (See large mortar bed in foreground of larger image.)
The pinkish soil in this feature suggests fire was located here, perhaps for heating Washington's stills.
Participants in our 2001 field school for teachers map their squares.
The possible malt kiln area excavated in 2002. The brick paving discovered in 1999 is in the left foreground; the "rubble floor" is to the right.
The foundation and brick floor of the possible malt kiln; the western wall of the distillery in foreground.
The large, circular feature of heat-altered soil with a square brick pier to the right.

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Esther White

Four Years of Excavation


We finished the survey of the property in September 1997 and retreated into the laboratory to plan a large-scale excavation. We returned in May 1999 to excavate a section through the center of the site. Our crew consisted of Christy Leeson, Thane Harpole, Betsy Alexander, and Courtney Sumy. One of our goals for this season was to figure out which layers were old, related to the 1797 distillery, and which were modern, post-1932 when the state park was developed. We opened a 20-by-50-foot area divided into ten squares and excavated a number of features to try and understand the site. We hadn't anticipated how well much of the distillery was preserved, thanks to a thick layer of mixed-clay fill that had been placed across the site during modern landscaping.

One pebble-filled feature appeared under the mixed-clay fill just east of the building foundation. We sampled a 15-foot section and discovered it contained a decayed wooden trough. The trough had a well-preserved series of nails pointing into it, suggesting it had a wooden top. This trough was eighteenth-century and in line with the wood discovered during the 1997 survey in unit 633. The Mount Vernon farm reports on October 7, 1797, recorded "making a fence and ditch round the still house." The wooden trough was probably set into this very ditch.

While the western foundation--large stones set into the bank of the millrace-- was well preserved, we discovered that the eastern foundation was missing. The foundation stones were probably taken by people living near the site in the nineteenth century to use as building material. This "robber's trench" along the route of the foundation was filled with debris discarded when the material was removed.

We uncovered a section of brick floor abutting the western foundation. Weekly farm reports from the period suggest the distillery had a wooden floor with numerous drains and troughs below. The presence of intact brick flooring in a portion of the building was surprising, though not completely unexpected. The process of turning grain into alcohol requires a heat source, and we think the brick floor would have been a good surface for firing up the stills.

Returning to the lab in November, we began to process artifacts and determine dating sequences. We also began intensive historical research into the site-specific documentary sources and distilling in general. We discovered that our distillery's product--corn and rye whiskey--was American, but that its production style and equipment layout was probably more Scottish, thanks to Washington's Scottish plantation manager James Anderson.


As in the previous year, we began the excavation season in May. Christy, Betsy, and Thane were joined by Dwayne Sheid and Beatrix Arendt. We opened 11 squares southeast of the 1999 excavation, hoping to assess the southern foundation and the southeast corner. We found the southern foundation wall intact with the bottom course of sandstone still mortared to the stones in places. This detail--that the two-foot wide, one-course deep, dry-laid foundation stones supported a two-foot wide sandstone wall--is one type of information our excavation is designed to recover and will be used by the architects and masons to reconstruct the building.

We also began to "see" the complex series of drains crossing the site. A number of drains fed the wooden perimeter trough we discovered in 1999, including the brick drain uncovered during the 1997 survey. This trough flowed southward toward Dogue Creek. South of the building we found a three-foot-wide trench running west to east. Although we didn't sample this ditch, we think it might be an outflow from the mill to divert water during floods and periods of inactivity. The wooden perimeter drain intrudes the ditch, which might mean the mill outflow was filled in before the distillery drain. We will test our theory this summer.

The dark dirt is thought to be an outflow for the millrace.
The modern utility pipe cuts through in the foreground.

We found a number of postholes east of the perimeter drain suggesting a wooden fence surrounded the complex. A fence is mentioned in farm reports and was likely erected to help secure the distillery from unsavory people living near the complex.

We also uncovered an area of heat-altered soil, a feature about ten feet in diameter containing brick. A heat source is necessary for the distilling process, and this was our first indication of one. We expected such evidence along the western wall on the brick floor found in 1999, but this feature was unearthed near the eastern wall where we thought there had been a wooden floor.

Our biggest news during 2000 was that the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) agreed to support the excavation, research, reconstruction, and interpretation of the distillery. Their pledge gave us the necessary funds for extended seasons and additional excavators, crucial for the large-scale project we'd begun.

Click here for excerpts from a volunteer's archaeology journal.


With the generous support of DISCUS, we were able to hire a large crew. This was a great help since our goal was to open 24 ten-by-ten-foot squares to fully uncover the footprint of the building. Eleanor, Laura Seifert, Jen, and Kim joined the project in 2001, along with Christy, Dwayne, Claire Henline, Devon Breithaupt, Myriam Arcangelli, Kelly Derr, and Mary Christ. While they'd admit it was hard work busting so much sod, I bet they'd say it wasn't as bad as excavating the mixed-clay fill layer in all the units!

We held a summer field school for teachers and another for archaeological certification students participating in a program sponsored by the Archeological Society of Virginia, the Council of Virginia Archaeologists, and the Department of Historic Resources.

Anna Anderson, a William and Mary graduate student, completed her masters thesis about the distillery's customers and the different whiskeys being produced. Her work helped focus our winter research on the scale of Washington's distillery. We wanted to find out how big this operation was compared to other late eighteenth-century whiskey distilleries. Knowing it operated five stills or produced 11,000 gallons a year did little to answer our questions. Was it an industrial distillery or a small-scale plantation operation? Were these a lot of stills, or was this only a little alcohol? We discovered it was in fact a rather large operation, industrial in nature, and that 11,000 gallons of whiskey was more than most other distilleries were producing in 1799.


After opening so many squares the previous year, it was nice to excavate something other than topsoil or mixed-clay fill. Eleanor, Laura Seifert, Kim, Jen, and Christy were joined by Brian and Laura Shick. Laura Seifert spent many weeks working on a sandstone foundation extending from the western wall that had been uncovered in 1932. We dug three quadrants of the area, but discovered an apparently heat-altered brick floor in the southeast section at the base of the sandstone walls. Fearing the brick wouldn't survive the winter if exposed, we decided to save that quadrant for 2003. We think it could be the malt kiln. According to the farm reports, a malt house and kiln was constructed in December 1798 once construction of the main distillery was finished. The kiln would have housed a heat source and channeled heat to dry germinated grain, completing the malting process.

We also uncovered another area of heat-altered soil similar to the one found in 2000. Although it's in poor condition, the feature has intact brick in a circular pattern with two small brick piers on each side. Similar one-foot-square piers were discovered in a number of other locations within the building. Currently we're divided on their function. Some think they're related to the burned areas, perhaps supports for a furnace or the stills, while others think they are structural, related to the framing of the building itself. This is another question we hope to answer this summer.

Our most surprising find was a paving of cobblestone, sandstone, and mortar rubble abutting the brick floor. Packed tightly and seemingly on purpose, this "rubble floor" is on the same plane as the brick floor. If the rubble is a floor, it's quite random in its construction and would have been an uneven surface to walk on. Based on early nineteenth-century distilling texts, it might be a subfloor to provide support for an overlying wooden floor. The distillers cooked and fermented grain in fifty large wooden barrels called mash tubs. During fermentation these barrels needed to be very still, and a subfloor may have minimized vibrations.

  The "rubble floor"

As we begin our final season of excavation, we have a number of hypotheses to guide us. We've studied our field notes, spent hours with our site maps, poured over period texts on distilling, and combed through documentation of Mount Vernon's distillery. We've also talked with many master distillers currently working in Kentucky and Tennessee and even sampled a whiskey or two. We are excited to get into the field and discover how these features and layers relate. By November we hope to have a clearer picture of how the distillery looked and a better understanding of how it operated.

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