Ornamental Separator

Ongoing Archaeology Projects

Many of you have been keeping up with the archaeological projects at Custis Square and at the site of the Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg on Nassau Street—but did you know that excavations are happening behind the scenes too? Each time Colonial Williamsburg’s historic landscape is modified, whether it’s to make way for infrastructure improvements or for the placement of a new interpretive experience, our archaeologists are working to ensure that archaeological resources are identified and preserved. This year, we’ll be conducting several small-scale excavations that will help us to understand parts of the historic area that have never been fully explored and will inform how we protect and interpret those resources in the future. The next time you visit Colonial Williamsburg, keep an eye out for archaeology in unexpected places and, in the meantime, take a sneak peek at some of our ongoing projects below!


In the Fall of 2018, Colonial Williamsburg began a project investigating our large collection of colonoware vessels and fragments. Our goal is to identify how this ceramic type was used in the 18th century by diverse groups of people, including enslaved African Americans, tavern keepers, and tradesmen by exploring spatial or temporal patterns in the distribution of colonoware across sites inside and outside Williamsburg.

Colonoware is a type of locally-produced coarse earthenware ceramic commonly found on colonial period archaeological sites. In 1962, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume was the first to recognize colonoware as a distinct ceramic type. At the time, he called it “Colono-Indian ware” because he thought that Native Americans produced the ware and sold it to English colonists. Since then, many scholars have argued that enslaved African Americans could have also produced and sold these ceramics. While there is debate over who produced these pots, it is clear they were an important part of the local economy for both the potters making them and the individuals using them every day. For this reason, our study focuses on the pots themselves to help answer questions about who made them, who used them, where were they used, and whether any of these things changed over time.

Our research began with the identification of attributes for over 2,000 pieces of colonoware from historic sites where free and enslaved individuals lived and worked within and directly outside Williamsburg. Most pieces of colonoware contain temper, which is a material like sand or crushed shell that is blended into the clay when the pot is made to prevent cracking and shrinkage during the firing process. Though often appearing plain or undecorated, most colonoware vessels have highly burnished or shiny surfaces and some examples in our collection feature sawtooth or scalloped rim decorations. Colonoware was also made in a variety of vessel shapes. In addition to the chamber pot pictured here, colonoware vessels include plates, pans, pipkins, bowls, and porringers. For this project, Colonial Williamsburg Archaeology Lab Technicians and a graduate student from William & Mary recorded the temper, decoration style, vessel form and many other traits of each colonoware fragment in a spreadsheet. Analysis of this data showed that there were two or three distinct “types” of colonoware, with the primary difference being whether the sherds contained sand or shell temper.

These types may represent different groups of potters, or they may reflect different kinds of temper used for specific vessel forms by the same potting group. To investigate these “types” further, we have chosen a subset of our collection that reflect these “types” in several different vessel forms for special analysis. These samples will undergo both portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) and laser ablation analysis in early 2022. We hope these techniques will help us identify the chemical composition of the clay used to make these pots, which might then be used to identify if multiple potters were making the “types” from different clays, or if all the types used the same clays and might have been made by the same potters. With these, we hope to compare the smaller sample size with the larger attribute analysis data to determine if there are any stronger spatial or temporal patterns in the distribution of colonoware throughout the historic Williamsburg area.

Magazine Site Project

The Powder Magazine in 1928, prior to restoration.
Measured drawing of the brick foundations of the octagonal wall surrounding the Powder Magazine drawn in 1933.

Starting in mid-July, archaeologists will begin excavations in the courtyard between the Powder Magazine and octagonal brick wall surrounding it.

While the foundations of the brick wall were excavated prior to their reconstruction in the 1930s, no excavation took place inside the courtyard area at that time. In the 1980s, a single, small excavation unit was excavated and uncovered an intact layer of soil dating to the 18th-century, proving that features, soil layers, and artifact clusters associated with the use of the Powder Magazine in the 1700s are still preserved under the modern landscaping. This archaeological project will provide evidence of the courtyard’s appearance and how the space was used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Additionally, we hope to identify the location of any ephemeral structures that were present, such as sheds, ramparts, internal fence lines, or scaffolds that may have been associated with the Powder Magazine, along with the approximate date of their construction/destruction. While we do not know what sort of artifacts we will encounter, excavations of the wall’s foundations in 1933 uncovered a cache of approximately 330 cannonballs buried sometime in the 18th century. By carefully dating the soil layers at this site we will be able to provide a more precise of when this cache was deposited and identify if any other stores were buried around the same time.

In addition to helping us better interpret the appearance and use of the courtyard area, we hope to find evidence that could tell us more about what the Powder Magazine looked like when it was built. The building was heavily re-built following a fire in the late 19th century and much of the original fabric of the building was lost. Over the course of our excavation, we will be working closely with Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Architectural Preservation and Research to investigate any clues that may help them to better understand the original, early-18th century appearance of this noteworthy structure.

The Powder Magazine with portions of the outer wall exposed during the restoration work in 1935.

Windmill Site Project

Map of Williamsburg’s early excavations showing the brick foundations of the two houses found in this area. “Area A” shows the full bounds of the Windmill Site survey.

From June 1st through August 6th, the joint Colonial Williamsburg/William and Mary archaeological field school will be excavating at the corner of Francis Street and Bucktrout Lane.

This site is slated to be the new location of the windmill that you may recognize if you’ve ever walked from to the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg from the Visitor’s Center. Field school students will learn how to perform archaeological excavations and identify historic artifacts while documenting any archaeological deposits that may be impacted by the placement of the windmill.

Previous archaeological excavations took place in 1940 and uncovered the remains of two houses, though neither appear on the Frenchman’s Map. The house on the west side of Area A was constructed in the early 1800s and included a small brick kitchen and two small outbuildings in its back lot. The house to the east side of the site had no outbuildings and consisted of two rooms with a central, “H” shaped chimney base. This style of construction was most common in the 17th and early 18th century. It is likely this house was built very soon after the town of Williamsburg was chartered. This site was also the original location of the Mount Ararat Baptist Church, whose founding Pastor, Rev. L. W. Wales, raised funds to build a church along Francis Street in 1888. This wooden building served the congregation until the 1930s when the city declared it a fire hazard and a new building was constructed in its present location at the intersection of Botetourt and Franklin streets.

During the field school, students will work to locate the foundations previously identified in 1940, using ground penetrating radar and a systematic test pit survey. At the same time, we will keep an eye out for other structures or features that may have been missed. By the end of the class, we hope to reach better understanding of the historic structures located on these lots and to inspire a new generation of young archaeologists.

Field school students excavate the future site of the windmill. Image Credit: Jerry McCoy.
Mount Ararat Baptist Church in its original location on Francis Street.

Brickyard Survey Project

Beginning in early May 2021, archaeological excavation near the corner of Botetourt and Franklin Streets will explore the future site of Colonial Williamsburg’s brickyard operation. The work is expected to extend into mid-June.

The purpose of this project is to identify surviving archaeological deposits that should be avoided in establishing the new brickyard. Archaeologists will excavate 50cm by 50cm test units every 10 meters across the property, screening all soils and collecting artifacts to reveal past activities. Previous excavations indicate that this area was plowed and put under cultivation in the 19th century. This agricultural activity mixed and disturbed most of the near-surface soil layers. Deeper intrusions however, like building foundations or fencepost holes, are likely to have survived beneath the plowzone. If any large features such as these are uncovered in the small test units, we will expand the size of the unit to fully identify and record them.

The area that we will be excavating includes the backlots behind the Davenport House and the Willie Baker House. Both structures were built along Nicholson Street in the early 18th century and were occupied into the 19th century. Previous excavations in this vicinity identified 17th century (Middle Plantation) domestic use of the area, although no pre-1699 structure has been identified so far.

The Frenchman’s Map (1782) does not depict any late 18th century building foundations on these backlots, however buildings dating earlier or later may exist on the property. Early in the 20th century the James City County Training School, a segregated school for Williamsburg’s Black residents, occupied the area where the Carpenter’s yard now stands. Our excavations will likely encounter evidence of the Training School (demolished in 1940) and other associated activities tied to the Botetourt Street corridor. Like earlier archaeological deposits, these will be recorded and preserved where appropriate

Randolph Stable Project

From early May through mid-July archaeologists will be excavating next to North England Street just north of the intersection with Scotland Street. The purpose of this excavation is to locate any surviving archaeological evidence for a large structure depicted in this area on the Frenchman’s Map.

This building may have served as the stable associated with Peyton Randolph’s estate in Williamsburg. Goals for the current excavation are to determine the size and location of the building, and to learn more about its use. To this end, we will be surveying the area with ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and excavating square test units in search of undisturbed historic deposits and features.

Evidence that the structure is the Randolph Stable comes from both documentary and archaeological sources. In 1783, a year after the Frenchman’s Map was drawn, the late Peyton Randolph’s property, including a stable with enough room for 12 horses and 2 carriages, was sold at auction. Significant archaeological excavations have taken place across much of Peyton Randolph’s property but to date, no stable has been identified. In the 1930s, trenches excavated along the edges of North England Street found tantalizing hints of structural foundations, but no photographs or detailed field notes were recorded. The upcoming project will involve re-excavating this area to examine these deposits more closely. At the same time, we will take advantage of the re-paving of North England Street to excavate beneath the asphalt for the first time. Since the majority of the structure lies within the bounds of the modern roadbed, we hope to discover never-before-seen evidence of the building that stood in this area in 1782.

Other Archaeology Projects

Custis Square

Our archaeologists are in the middle of a 5-year exploration of Custis Square, the 4-acre pasture across from the Art Museums where the 18th-century home and gardens of John Custis IV once stood. Learn more.

First Baptist Church

Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists are also excavating the site of First Baptist Church, one of America’s oldest churches founded entirely by Blacks, under the guidance of the congregation. Learn more.

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