When archaeologists began preparing to excavate the north yard of one of Colonial Williamsburg’s largest and most important houses this past May, the ground ran flat and level.
Stretching more than 30 feet from a surviving 18th-century outbuilding to a white picket fence — and more than twice that distance in length — it was a wide, smooth and unbroken expanse, making it easy to see why the pioneering preservationists who carried out one of the Historic Area’s first restoration efforts here in the early 1930s later decided to interpret it as a formal garden.
But not long after the students of the joint CW-College of William and Mary field school began cutting into it with their shovels late this spring, the property overlooking the west garden of the Governor’s Palace began to reveal the unexpected signs of a much earlier yet long-hidden contour.
Inch after inch of fill gave way as they dug down more than three feet, unearthing not only an increasingly steep slope but also an ancient refuse pit so deep that their probes have yet to find the bottom.
“We didn’t know there was a ravine here,” Senior Staff Archaeologist Mark Kostro says. “There’s nothing like it shown on the Frenchman’s Map of Williamsburg made in 1781. So it’s a pretty significant discovery in terms of what the landscape here looked like and how it was used.
“This is where they were throwing their trash, and they left this incredibly rich assemblage — oyster shells, kitchen ceramics, tableware, wine bottle glass, table glass, animal bones and an African cowrie shell — that may tell us a lot about the elite family who lived here and the enslaved Africans who served them.”
Full of puzzles
Erected in the early 1700s, the landmark two-story house near the head of Palace Green has long been linked to the legendary Robert "King" Carter, who was not only the richest man in Virginia but also acting governor of the colony at about the time building 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 the people associated with the structure, however, relatively little was known about the construction and evolution of one of the colonial capital's most significant dwellings until architectural historians began revisiting the original study several years ago.
Among the many questions left unanswered more than eight decades after that 1932 report were the exact starting date — which historian Helen Bullock could place no more accurately than “sometime” before 1746 — and the identity of the house’s first owner, which “as far as can be determined at this time” was one of “King” Carter’s sons, she wrote.
“They couldn’t find a record. The trail of deeds went cold in 1746,” CW Architectural Historian Jeff Klee says.
“So it wasn’t until we did a dendrochronology study of the roof rafters that we knew construction started in 1726-27 — and that enabled us to say pretty confidently that the builder was ‘King’ Carter.”
More discoveries came after the house’s decades-long use as a residence and offices ended in 2015, enabling the foundation’s architectural historians to examine it closely and at length for the first time since it was reconstructed.
“We’ve always recognized it as an important house,” Klee says, describing the meticulous floor-to-ceiling examination that uncovered extensive evidence of previously unknown changes to the interior finish.
“But it was also a rich and complex architectural mystery that we knew we didn’t know enough about.”
Similar questions led to the first summer field school dig in 2017, when Kostro and his students began exploring the unusually wide open, terraced back yard believed to have been designed to work hand-in-hand with the house’s unusual rear-facing orientation.
“In the 18th-century, most of the houses in Williamsburg were oriented to the front,” Klee says. “And that’s because the yard in the back of the house was a smelly, noisy work space filled with all kinds of household activities — boiling pots, laundry, butchering chickens — that polite people didn’t want to look at.
“But this house faced to the rear. The best rooms are on the back — and it all appears to have been done so the owners could look out on a vista that was deliberately created by shoving the outbuildings and work spaces to the sides and building terraces for a formal garden.
“We just didn’t know when or why.”
Though the artifacts and features unearthed during the 2017 dig were notably scant, they also confirmed that the space had been left open and lightly used rather than cut up by outbuildings and trash deposits, Kostro says.
As the excavation worked it way down through more than 18 inches of early-20th-century fill, moreover, the tell-tale signs of formal planting beds and a central pathway paved with crushed oyster shells emerged, confirming for the first time the yard’s 18th-century function as a pleasure garden.
That question answered, the researchers turned this year to the north yard and a surviving brick outbuilding, whose purpose remains unclear after nearly 90 years of study at the site.
“Why do you have a building in a service yard made of brick?” Klee says. “Brick was expensive, so you have to ask if it was really a service building or some sort of building associated with the family — maybe an office where Carter could have received guests without having them come into the house.
“We’ve already identified the kitchen and the smokehouse on the other side of the site. So it clearly wasn’t used for those purposes. And we hope we’ll be able to learn more about it from the excavation.”
With two weeks of digging left to go before the field school ends, the evidence recovered so far falls pretty evenly between the family and the household, with high-end wine bottles, stemware and dinner plates well-mixed in with such utilitarian wares as kitchen ceramics and iron cooking pots, Kostro says.
Animal bones add to the mix of clues about life at great town house, though further analysis will be needed to determine their significance.
Among the most evocative finds discovered side-by-side with the cast-off trash of one of Colonial Virginia’s most prominent families is a single cowrie shell of a type found only in the Indian Ocean.
“It’s one of the few artifacts that we can link directly to Africa and enslaved Africans,” Kostro says.
“We’ve found others in Williamsburg, but not frequently. So finding one here at this location tells us a lot about the people occupying and using this space.”
Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.
Robert Carter House archaeological excavation
Where: On the north side of the Robert Carter House on the northwest side of Palace Green, Williamsburg
When: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday through Aug. 3
Info: 757-229-1000; facebook.com/Colonial-Williamsburg-Archaeology-150730308295927