Teasing out the secrets of the Raleigh Tavern

When Colonial Williamsburg added a new front porch to the Raleigh Tavern this past fall, physical clues from a 2016 dig played a key role in steering the dramatic change to one of the Historic Area’s most iconic structures.

Now that hoard of more than 100,000 artifacts is undergoing an analysis that could shed still more light on the landmark tavern, which not only grew up along with Virginia’s colonial capital but also served as a prime social and political meeting place for elite residents in the years leading to the Revolution.

Recovered during a five-month probe along the structure’s front facade, the unexpectedly large and well-preserved assemblage owes its survival partly to the protective nature of the porch itself, which shielded the cast-off objects from weather and foot traffic, CW archaeologist Mark Kostro says.

But it also remained largely intact despite a pioneering archaeological excavation in the late 1920s and the ground-breaking reconstruction that became the first exhibit building a few years later.

“The expectation when we started was that there was very little left to find. We assumed that everything of interest had been uncovered in the ’20s — and that the site had been badly disturbed by both the reconstruction and the 80-years worth of utilities that followed,” Kostro says.

“But what we discovered is that when you ask yourself why we continue digging when we already know ‘everything’ about Williamsburg — the answer is that we don’t. We’re always finding things that are changing our understanding of what life was like here in the 1700s.”

Overlooked clues

Just how far off the first excavations were in their assessment of the tavern site can be explained by the trailblazing nature of the late-’20s digs and the questions they were trying to answer, Kostro says.

Bent on uncovering the architectural evidence needed to inform an ambitious reconstruction program, they focused intently on such building features as foundations, stoops, hearths and piers but generally paid little attention to either artifacts or the clues they could offer about the age and life of a structure.

That meant not only misdating the 18th-century porch piers they unearthed but also leaving untouched artifact deposits measuring as deep as 18 inches.

“What’s great about porches for archaeologists is that when things are thrown off them they tend to get swept up and pushed back under the floor where they’re much better protected than other places,” he says.

“The piers we found were buried under almost a foot of this sedimentation — much of it so well-preserved that we have large pieces where you can actually see the vessel form and not just a little fragment.”

Newly washed and identified, the artifacts already have helped date three different architectural features from the tavern’s long 18th-century history, beginning with the small center entrance stoop constructed in the early 1700s, then moving to the greatly expanded porch of the Revolutionary era — which provided the footprint for the recent reconstruction — and concluding with a still-longer porch built as the century closed.

But now they’re being analyzed for information about possible changes in the tavern’s prominence and clientele over that time, plus the kind of meals, drink and entertainment it provided compared to the other taverns that operated near the Capitol on Duke of Gloucester Street.

“This is the first time we’ve had artifacts from the tavern to study. So we’re very interested in what they can tell us in terms of its patrons and what they were served,” Kostro says.

“We already have artifacts from the Coffeehouse down the street as well as Wetherburn’s and Shields’ taverns, which were located across the street. But we haven’t had anything to compare with them until now.”

Study tools

Previous artifact studies have been instructive, revealing that the owners’ of Charleton’s Coffeehouse, for example, saved money by buying less expensive wares that mimicked better and more costly plates, cups and drinking vessels.

But they were far less frugal when it came to the ingredients used to prepare their guests’ meals.

They also spared no expense making sure their own front porch embraced the colony’s ingrained tobacco culture, which resulted in the deposit of thousands of pieces of fractured clay pipes as well as a multitude of broken stemware over the years of the coffeehouse’s operations.

“We have a lot of evidence of wine drinking and smoking going on there — and it’s clear that many taverns in Williamsburg had similar porches. But it’s not yet known if they all used them in the same way,” Kostro says.

“They were all competitors. They all could look up and down the street and see their customers stumbling out on the street at the end of the night. And we think there may have been sort of a pecking order in which some were more sophisticated and elite than the others in the meals and entertainment they offered.”

That analysis will take at least several months and require sorting through the 100,000 artifacts in order to draw out any telling patterns.

Wine bottles, stemware, beer mugs and punch bowls are expected to be provide some of the best indicators of the alcoholic beverages the tavern served, Kostro says, while dining wares and animal bones may lead to insights about the meals that kept the customers coming.

Other less common artifacts may tell parts of the tavern’s story, too, including such objects as the unusual number of ceramic wig curlers recovered during the 2016 dig.

“There was a wig maker just across the street, so this could just be some noise that strayed over from there,” the archaeologist says.

“Or it could be a sign that some customers were literally letting their hair down on the porch.”

ONLINE: Go to dailypress.com/history to see videos and photos from the Raleigh Tavern dig and artifact analysis.

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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