2012 University of Mary Washington Field School in Archaeology at Stratford Hall Plantation

After 10 weeks in the field, another successful season of archaeology at Stratford Hall wrapped up earlier this month. Under the direction of Professor Douglas W. Sanford and assistants Andrew Wilkins, Luan Cao, and Kathleen O’Toole; 9 University of Mary Washington students learned the techniques of archaeological excavation, recording, mapping, photography, artifact identification, and engaged in weekly discussions of scholarly readings. We also took field trips to James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, VA and to the Maryland Archaeological Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard, MD where we saw other ongoing archaeological projects and facilities in the Chesapeake region.

This year our efforts at Stratford once again focused on ST92, also known as the Oval Site, which is located about 850 feet south of the Great House at the southwest edge of the oval lawn. ST92 is a complex of at least 3 buildings that date to the second half of the eighteenth century, circa 1740-1800. The site was discovered in the 1970’s in a survey of the plantation undertaken by the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology, directed by Dr. Fraser D. Nieman. In 2001, the UMW field school began a more intensive investigation of the site, revealing several post-in-ground, or “earthfast”, structures and a rubble-filled brick-lined basement. No documents have been found that would tell us what these specific buildings were used for or even that they existed at all. However, the nature of the architecture, artifacts, and the overall layout of the site on the landscape lead us to interpret it as an overseer’s house and associated outbuildings, including a large 20’ by 40’ barn that possibly served to store tobacco, as well as a smaller 16’ by 16’ structure that likely served as slave’s quarters.

Hand engraved octagonal sleeve buttons

The site was plowed for over 100 years following it’s abandonment around 1800, leaving a 1-foot deep artifact-rich zone of plowed soil which the students carefully excavated in 5’ square units in order to record both the horizontal and vertical location of our finds. Beneath the plowzone, disturbances that cut deeper into the natural layers of sands and clays reveal the presence of various features: from tree roots and mole burrows, to eighteenth-century structures and fence-lines. This year’s excavations during the 5-week field school course focused on the smaller slave quarter building. We located the sixth and final post-hole marking the southeast corner of the structure, as well as several ditch and fence features to the south near an area we suspect served as a garden. Students found evidence of the structure itself in brick, wrought iron nails, and window glass; as well as the items owned and used by the site’s occupants such as bottle glass, tobacco pipes, buttons, and a wide variety of ceramics. Some of the exciting finds of were 2 hand engraved octagonal sleeve buttons, made of brass and washed with silver. We have also continued to find several pieces of decorative brass horse or carriage tack, which use elements of the British coat of arms featuring a lion and unicorn.

Decorative brass horse or carriage tack

During the last 5 weeks 2 students, Erin Dandridge and Stephanie Battleson, were hired to join the crew as we continued our work on the site, now focused on the other 2 structures: the overseer’s house and barn. Both areas had been intensively investigated in previous years, and this summer’s work involved exploring and documenting the postholes of the barn, as well as excavating the last few layers of rubble in the basement of the overseer’s house. Overall, the Oval Site reveals the working side of life during the eighteenth century at Stratford Hall Plantation. The grounds of Stratford and it’s outlying properties were once dotted with multiple complexes of housing and farm buildings like ST92, which are now hidden beneath farm fields and woodlots. The Oval Site offers a valuable opportunity to investigate the populations of enslaved African Americans and free white employees that once worked the land, and also the active and complex landscape of a large Virginia plantation. Plans for next year’s field school are already underway, as we hope to investigate several more features of the Oval Site’s slave quarter structure.


-Andrew Wilkins, University of Mary Washington Archaeology Field School Assistant