The first archaeological excavations at Stratford Hall began in the early 1930s under the supervision of landscape architect Morley Williams, who was employed by The Garden Club of Virginia to restore the garden area east of the main house. Archaeological methodology of the time consisted primarly of trenching to discover building foundations and major landscape features. Not much attention was paid to artifacts and associated stratigraphy. Archaeologists such as Charles Pinckney and Arthur Shurcliff, however unsophisticated their methods by today’s standards, managed to compile a significant amount of information for future archaeologists. Their field reports, excavation plans and photographs still exist in the duPont Library archives.
Prompted by archaeologist Paul Hudson’s discovery of seventeenth-century artifacts in Stratford Hall’s Mill Field, a comprehensive archaeological survey of the plantation was made in the mid-1970s under the direction of archaeologist Fraser Neiman (currently Director of Archaeology at Monticello). Neiman then concentrated his excavations at Mill Field where he and his crew uncovered the 17-century Clifts Plantation “Manner House” site. The “Manner House” excavation, with its earthfast architecture, palisade, and interpretation within a social context, was one of the most significant excavations of the decade.
The 1990s saw the formation of a partnership with the University of Mary Washington to hold a summer field school in historical archaeology, which is still held each year. The current strategy is to systematically study the landscape of the Lees to reveal how they and the other occupants of Stratford, particularly the enslaved population, lived and worked. These excavations will allow us to discover the complex structure of the landscape and how it has changed over time, and guide future research, interpretation, and possible reconstruction of missing buildings and landscape features.
Analyzing artifact distribution has become particularly important to researchers, especially those studying slave quarter sites in the early Chesapeake region. Stratford Hall has information on the small slave quarter site in the Old Orchard area (ST116) entered into the Digital Archaeological Archive of Chesapeake Slavery.
The artifacts from the Clifts site are currently housed at Stratford Hall. The majority of the artifacts from field school excavations are at the University of Mary Washington. Further information on archaeology at Stratford Hall is available in the duPont Library archives. Contact Stratford Hall’s Director of Research & Library Collections for information and/or appointment.
Stratford Hall is currently developing a long-term research program that, in addition to architectural and historical studies, includes the archaeological examination of the plantation’s historical landscape. Surprisingly little documentation exists about additional buildings, formal and informal gardens, or how the yards that once surrounded the Great House were utilized by members of the Lee family and the plantation’s large African-American community. Therefore, the primary goals of the investigation are to determine the structure and evolution of the plantation’s past landscape and to understand how people used this space.
For archaeologists, landscape means more than formal gardens and grounds. It includes small and large outbuildings, work yards, kitchen gardens, trash pits, fences, walls, and ditches. These types of landscape features resulted from both academic plans for majestic estates and informal arrangements based on traditional ways of organizing rural life and work.
For the past several years, the field school has focused on a domestic farm site at the south end of the Oval. They have excavated a 16 x 16 foot post-in-ground building with an 8 x 16 foot frame addition with brick-lined cellar.
To the south of this building, another large earthfast structure was discovered. Excavation units revealed the proportions of the building. The eighteenth-century structure measured 20 feet by 40 feet and had a hearth at its easternmost end. Like other structures found at the site, this post-in-ground building, possibly a tobacco barn, was torn down by the end of the Revolutionary period. A third building, possibly a kitchen or quarter to the west of the other buildings, has been partially excavated. The positioning of a crudely-constructed work area within sight of the grand main house at Stratford shows that the Lees lived within a very different landscape than the manicured Colonial Revival setting we see today.
The current archaeological study at Stratford is sponsored by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association in cooperation with the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington. The field school normally runs five weeks beginning in May and the crew continues excavations into July. By visiting the Stratford Hall staff blog, you will be able to read about the most recent findings of the digs.