Thursday, August 8, 2013

An Interview with the Staff Archaeologist

Due to a great deal of interest in our last post about Archaeology, and a number of questions that have come up about what has been uncovered, and why and where we are looking, we decided to have an interview with Dave Shonyo, our staff Archaeologist.  We took this opportunity to look at what has been done and why.  The conversation is between Dave and our Education Manager, Lacey Villiva.

Our archaeologist hard at work, 
carefully excavating an exciting pit.
LV: Why are we doing archaeology at Gunston Hall?

DS: We have come to understand that George Mason regarded his interior and exterior living spaces as extensions of one another. Careful studies of the interior of the mansion since the 1950’s have permitted us to now present an interior living space that closely resembles the one that Mason knew. It has only been since the late 1990’s that similar attention has been given to the exterior space. Here we are seeking clues that have survived in the ground, through archaeology.
The process is complicated by the fact that we have no documents from Mason’s time that would provide any information about the landscape at Gunston Hall. This is in contrast to the homes of many of Mason’s peers and contemporaries, such as Mount Vernon, Montpelier and Monticello.
Added to this is the fact that, with the possible exception of the Civil War years, Gunston Hall has been continuously occupied for over 250 years. The occupants subsequent to George Mason have all altered the landscape to serve their individual needs and to reflect current fashion. Buildings have gone up and come down; the use of the land has been altered to serve many different purposes. I find it remarkable that there is anything at all to be found of the eighteenth century landscape. But, bits and pieces are there to be found with diligent search in the nooks and crannies of the present day plantation.

LV: Speaking of original documentation, how helpful are John Mason’s Recollections on discovering where features are?

The archaeology program requires a lot of time and effort,
many volunteers, like this one, assist with the digging,
cleaning and cataloging of artifacts.
DS: George Mason’s son, John, wrote his Recollections late in his life to provide his children and grandchildren with an account of what life was like with their famous forbearer. As such, it is our only eyewitness account of Gunston Hall at the time of George Mason. It was not John Mason’s intent to provide a detailed description of the plantation, but he does mention in passing some of the features of the landscape. However, he does not really describe what those features looked like nor does he tell us exactly where they were located. He does suggest what we should be looking for and sometimes the general area where we should look. The usual reaction when we find something that he mentions is, “So that’s what he meant.”

LV: What has been discovered through archaeology?

DS: In the most general sense, we have come to understand that Mason himself designed the landscape arrangement that immediately surrounded the mansion, and that a great deal of care and ingenuity went into that design. To the extent that a creative person can be understood by examining that person’s creations, an understanding of this landscape gives us a better understanding of the character and thought processed of George Mason.

         More specifically, some of the major findings have been: the location of the garden walkways and the enclosing fences, which provides us with the general layout of the formal garden; the original configuration of the terrace at the end of the garden; the exact location of the cherry tree avenues that flanked the entrance drive, which provide an understanding of the optical effects that were created by the unusual layout of the avenues; a better, but not yet complete, understanding of the original layout of the kitchen yard and its relationship to the mansion and garden; the location of the landing on the Potomac River and the road which led from the landing to the vicinity of the mansion; evidence of the carriage turn-around apron  at the land front entrance of the mansion, which may or may not be part of a carriage circle; literally thousands of artifacts which have yielded a picture of the everyday objects used in the mansion and elsewhere on the plantation, some of the things that were being eaten and even some of the things that were being grown. And then there the many minor finds, some of which we don’t understand yet, and the inevitable excavations that yield nothing.

LV: Has archaeology been able to determine the presence of enslaved people?

DS: Well, we have always found a certain number of artifacts that are typically associated with eighteenth century African Americans. Examples include a certain style of beads and the presence of scales of the gar, a fish that was consumed by slaves but not people of European descent. However, the question of where the slaves were quartered is another matter. John Mason in his Recollections mentions a quarter called “Log Town” somewhere to the northwest of the mansion, and “servant quarters” to the east of the mansion. Neither of these has ever been found.

The sites where slave housing was once located are notoriously difficult to find. Masonry foundations were very rarely used. The vast majority were anchored to the ground with posts. Once the post rots, all that is left is a small patch of soil that is a slightly different color than the surrounding soil. As can be imagined, these can be extremely difficult to find if one does not have a very good idea of where to look. A better hope is to find an artifact scatter that might indicate an occupation or activity area. But, in the search for slave quarters in the vicinity of the plantation mansion, these present a special problem. This is because the artifacts left by slaves that worked in or near the mansion are nearly indistinguishable from those left by the occupants of the mansion. However, it may be possible to distinguish the two on the basis of food remains. For example, it is unlikely that the slaves would be feasting on oysters, a favorite delicacy of the Masons. So there would be few, if any oyster shells in a slave occupation area. The slaves would almost certainly be supplementing their diet with animals that they could capture themselves. Therefore, we would expect a slave quarter to have a relative abundance of fish bones and scales – including the aforementioned gar scales – and bones of game animals.

LV: What are you working on now?

DS: One of the big finds so far this season has been a plot containing fifteen burials, which may be the long lost Mason family burying ground at Newtown. I have discussed this in another post.

A recently discovered feature which may be a sub-floor pit.
We are currently in the process of excavating an area to the east of the mansion which has some very interesting features. I am not ready to declare that it is a slave occupation area, but what we have found here would be consistent with that. The features include two pits (slave cabins usually have sub-floor pits), two post molds and a rich deposit of artifacts which includes an abundance of charcoal and an assemblage of food remains similar to that I mentioned previously. We have not yet found, however, that one feature or artifact that tells us that this can only be a slave occupation. But, I do have hope…

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