Probing a landscape mystery at Colonial Williamsburg

Little is known about the origin and date of the terraced property behind one of Colonial Williamsburg's great

In a place that's been probed and studied as much as Colonial Williamsburg, you'd think the buildings and grounds would have run out of secrets long ago.

But that's not the case at the landmark Robert Carter House off Palace Green — or the puzzling series of terraces that descend from its back door to the bottom of an adjacent hollow.

Stripped back to the studs in the late 1920s, then reconstructed in the early '30s, the grand frame dwelling was one of the earliest targets of the restoration and its pioneering research teams.

They dug across the terraces with exploratory trenches, too, searching for the hidden brick footprints of lost buildings.

Not until this past year, however, have researchers spurred by the mysteriously reshaped landscape and the rear orientation of the house's best rooms returned to revisit the questions their predecessors of nearly 90 years ago left unanswered.

In 2016, they led students from the College of William and Mary architectural history field school in the first close look at the building since 1931, then began to hunt through the Carter family papers for previously missed clues.

This summer they launched a second, much more informed excavation, with students from the CW-W&M archaeological field school helping to search for the elusive signs that might explain why and when the landscape was so dramatically altered.

"What we know is that the outbuildings here are located to the sides instead of directly behind the house and that the dining room — the best room in the house — is on the back instead of the front," archaeology teaching assistant Alexis Ohman says.

"That's unlike almost every other house in Williamsburg — and it raises the question of why. We think there was an ornamental garden here, but we want to know for sure."

Puzzling history

Erected in the early 1700s, the prominent two-story house is linked closely to the legendary Robert "King" Carter, who was not only the richest man in Virginia but also acting governor when work started.

It later passed to Carter's grandson, Robert Carter Nicholas — a leading lawyer, burgessman and treasurer of the colony — followed by grandson Robert "Councillor" Carter III — an elite planter whose landmark 1791 deed of emancipation freed more than 450 slaves in the largest single act of manumission before the Civil War.

Despite the high profiles of these figures, however, relatively little was known about the construction and evolution of one of the town's most significant dwellings until the new research campaign.

Only recently did dendrochronological analysis of the roof rafters reveal that construction began in 1726-27, sharpening previous estimates of its age by nearly two decades.

Newer still are the discoveries made by reviewing "King" Carter's diaries and letters, which show he stayed in his favorite taverns rather than the house he is now believed to have helped build for a daughter.

"Carter was the richest man in Virginia, and he could afford to set up all his children," architectural historian Jeff Klee says.

"And as grand as this house was compared to all the others in Williamsburg — where only a couple were larger — it's not the biggest or best house he helped his children build."

Exactly who was calling the shots as the house rose from the ground, however, remains a mystery.

But there's no doubt after the inch-by-inch, floor-to-ceiling scrutiny of the structure carried out in 2016 that it was unconventional from the beginning.

"The best rooms are at the back. It has more windows at the rear. There's this unusual focus on the rear yard at a time when all the other houses in town are focused on the front. And the reason from the beginning has to do with the landscape," Klee says.

"They weren't looking out at work spaces and outbuildings like everybody else. The outbuildings are pushed off to the side. And when you combine that with what looks like early terracing, it's all consistent with a deliberate attempt to mold the rear yard into an ornamental garden."

Potential answers

As with most sites in Williamsburg, the rear yard of the Robert Carter House was explored with cross-trenching before its reconstruction in the early 1930s.

The pioneering excavation method was designed to locate the footprints of early buildings through their surviving brick foundations, archaeologist Mark Kostro says, but it also ignored other kinds of evidence now recognized as vitally important.

"They found nothing back here. But they weren't aware of earthfast buildings back then, so we're searching for evidence of post holes they would have overlooked," he explained.

"We're also looking for evidence of planting beds and garden paths that weren't on the radar when they did the trenching."

Just how challenging that probe could be is shown in the lessons of a 2005-07 dig at the College Yard, where — even with the help of the plan preserved by an engraving on the 18th-century Bodleian Plate — it took several seasons to ferret out evidence of one of colonial America's earliest and most celebrated formal gardens.

Some 18 inches of early-20th-century fill has only added to the task here, requiring more than a month to remove as the archaeologists worked down through the soil in search of early features.

"The things we're looking for are very ephemeral and shallow, and they're easily missed if you work too quickly," Kostro says.

"It's a challenging exercise to excavate a garden."

Still, the continued absence of building features is regarded as a clue in itself, since it indicates the yard was kept open rather than being cut up by structures.

The lack of trash deposits and small number of artifacts found offer supporting evidence, too, suggesting a landscape that was lightly used instead of being dug up to dispose of garbage.

In recent days, several other more positive signs have emerged, including a long, dark linear stain in the soil that could be the first evidence of a planting bed.

Then there's the tantalizing sprinkle of crumbled white shell that stretches for 6 feet or more across the middle of a terrace — and centers almost exactly on the house's back door.

"It's not thick. It's clearly not intact. But it could be the remnants of a path," Kostro says.

"I think we've found enough to say we may have identified the elements of a garden. And that gives us an anchor to expand from."

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

"Building Detectives"

What: Learn how to unravel the mysteries of Williamsburg's historic architecture during a 45-minute exploration of the Robert Carter House with an architectural historian.

When: 9:30 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. Monday-Friday, through Sept. 1

Cost: Free with Historic Area ticket, but a separate ticket is required.

Robert Carter House yard dig

When: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays through Aug. 4, weather permitting

Cost: Free

Info: 757-229-1000

More online: Go to dailypress.com/history to see photos and video from the site.

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