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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
Excavating shovel test pits (STPs). The reconstructed gristmill is in the background. To the right is a corner of the distillery foundation's brick outline and the interpretive sign.
Native American artifacts found during the survey--stone projectile points (top) and pottery (bottom)
The reconstructed miller's cottage
Domestic artifacts discovered near the miller's cottage. Clockwise from upper left: bone buttons, copper alloy thimble, clay tobacco pipes, pewter spoon.
Michelle McClenny cleaning the brick drain discovered in test unit 636
The distillery's western foundation revealed in test unit 787

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon.
by Esther White

The Archaeological Survey & Testing of Gristmill Park
or Finding Washington's Distillery, Which Wasn't Really Lost


Aerial photograph of George Washington's gristmill taken ca. 1975. The site of the distillery, outlined with bricks, is to the left between the two trees.

While playing croquet at the distillery site during a field-school picnic in 1992, Dennis Pogue and I discussed what a wonderful opportunity it would be to study it. The Commonwealth of Virginia had owned the seven-acre property of Washington's gristmill, distillery, and cooperage since 1932 and had operated it as a rather sleepy historical site. The Commonwealth offered it to Mount Vernon a few times in the past, but each time the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the private organization that owns and operates Washington's home, declined. In 1995, they offered the property again, and this time the prospect of owning Washington's industrial complex seemed like a perfect fit for Mount Vernon. (See Dennis' post to learn why.)

Soon after agreeing to restore the 1930s reconstruction of George Washington's 1770 gristmill, Mount Vernon began to contemplate changes to the property to accommodate increased visitors a working mill would attract. Part of the planning process at Mount Vernon includes understanding the cultural resources, so this called for a comprehensive survey of the site. In March 1997, we entered the field to discover what archaeological sites existed at the park. Our crew included Christy Leeson, the assistant archaeologist, Thane Harpole, Michelle McClenny, Lisa Plumley, Amy Dennis, and Ginger Williams.

To locate sites, archaeologists excavate small holes called shovel test pits (STPs) at regular intervals. At the gristmill we dug an STP every 20 feet. Our survey of the property was also designed to give us a better idea of how the topography and land use changed over time. In 1932, during construction of Route 235, much of the land between the road and the mill and miller's cottage was bulldozed, destroying any archaeological remains. The hill north of Dogue Creek was built higher at this time, burying the eighteenth-century soils.

Documenting landscape changes and the locations of archaeological deposits provides Mount Vernon information needed to manage the property effectively and efficiently. Utility lines, walkways, and signs can be put in where they won't destroy the buried past. We also create detailed maps of where the modern utilities are located by mapping the soils encountered in each STP. This information is invaluable to our operations and maintenance department, and I like to think this contribution has made them appreciate the archaeologists' skills.

Thane Harpole poses by an STP.


In digging 532 STPs, we discovered that Native Americans lived on the property during the Late Archaic Period (3500-1000 B.C.) and more recently during the Late Woodland Period (A.D. 900-1600). We also found a number of spots where the soil and artifacts suggested historical sites. Locating the site of the distillery was not difficult; our croquet course had a brick outline of the foundation, as well as an interpretive sign. When the Commonwealth developed the property in 1932, they conducted excavations of the three main buildings: the mill, miller's cottage, and distillery. They chose to fully reconstruct the first two, but only indicated the presence of the distillery. We were surprised to discover the brick outline was 60 by 30 feet, an 1803 insurance document states that the distillery measured 75 by 30 feet.

To get a better peek at what's below the surface in especially interesting spots, we excavated five-by-five-foot test units in three areas. One near the reconstructed mill revealed layers of soil deposited when the mill was built in 1770, another area near the reconstructed miller's cottage had a large midden, or trash pile, of garbage discarded by George Washington's millers and their families. Finally, we excavated three units at the site of Washington's distillery to assess preservation of the site. We were surprised to find intriguing features in each one.

In unit 636 we discovered a brick drain. Unit 633 (see image below) held a linear trench with preserved wood. A large posthole was also found in this unit. Because of the presence of the posthole, at the time we interpreted the linear feature with wood as a foundation sill for a structure. (The list of "missing" buildings at the site includes slave quarters, a malt kiln, the cooperage, and animal enclosures.) The third square, unit 787, was positioned directly over a section of massive stones. Washington's letters record that the distillery's foundation stones were brought by boat from the Falls of the Potomac, about 20 miles up the river from Mount Vernon. We were surprised to discover the foundation was so massive; one of the stones measured more than two feet across.

[image]A map of test unit 633 drafted during our survey. The wood "sill" (1), the trench containing the wood (2), the southeast corner of the distillery foundation (3), the postmold (4), the posthole (5), and subsoil or natural clay (6). [LARGER IMAGE]

These three units, combined with the information from the STPs, convinced us that the distillery survived relatively intact just below the grass. Through careful excavation combined with historical and comparative research, we hoped to discover more about the appearance of the structure, the layout of the equipment within the structure, and how the distillery operated, but it would be almost two years before we could return to begin our excavation.

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