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. Information about the Clifts excavation site can be found at The Clifts Plantation Site: Summary of Documentary Evidence and Intra-site Chronology.
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 Comparative Slavery (DAACS).
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.
Update on the Oval Site
Researched and written by Daniel W. Shevalier, Gettysburg College, 2018 Paul C. Reber Intern
One of the staple features of the Great House’s pastoral landscape is the Oval, the grassy field which lies on the south side of the building complex. Formed by roads that connect the lane in front of the House itself to the main plantation road, this area is currently dominated by long wild grasses that are native to the region. By all indications however, the field’s modern appearance is but the latest iteration of the landscape.
Archaeological surveys of the area conducted ca. 1976-7 under the direction of Fraser Neiman revealed a much different landscape contemporary to when the Great House was built. The survey uncovered the remnants of two structures; one appeared to be a living quarters, the other a small service building, such as a kitchen. This indicated a more economic use of the landscape than its current use. This first discovery revealed that living quarters building was about 8 ft by 16 ft., most likely constructed from brick and wood. Found among the brick and mortar debris that remained was a significant amount of ash, indicating the building’s demise by fire. Furthermore, ceramic ware found among the rubble provided a rough date range, from about 1725 to around 1800, most likely built and inhabited before the building of the Great House in 1738. Unfortunately, there are no Lee family documents relating to these structures.
Unlike the Great House complex, the farm structures were not aligned neatly on an East-West axis. Rather, the buildings sat diagonally aligned on a North-East South-West axis. This suggested that the buildings were not part of the Great House complex itself, but rather a separate set of buildings entirely, aligned along a documented road that ran from the entrance of the plantation to the wharf on the Potomac. After these initial discoveries, the area was put to the wayside for almost 30 years.
Excavation of the site was again taken up by the Archaeological Field School, a partnership between Stratford Hall and the University of Mary Washington under the direction of Dr. Doug Sanford, in the summer of 2001. Over the course of several years, with a few brief hiatuses, the Field School excavated the site and discovered a more complex area than first thought. One of their major discoveries was the structure of a third building, larger than the others, which evidence suggested to be a barn used for tobacco storage. Further analysis suggested that the original building discovered, that is the living quarters, likely belonged to an overseer. The other building, the service building, was likely a kitchen that most likely served as living quarters for enslaved Africans working on the site. Other significant discoveries include hardened and reddened patches of earth as well as the presence of smaller brick shards without mortar, indicating that the area was used for brick-making.
18th century farming practices in the American South utilized enslaved Africans as a primary labor force, which was usually coordinated by a white overseer. It was the overseer’s job to make sure that all of the slaves were doing their work and cared for, as well as managing all of the livestock and farm equipment. Overseers were usually white men who lived in the area, who perhaps would not inherit their family plot and therefore had to make a life of their own. The terms of the overseer’s contract often involved regular pay, a share of the crops produced, and a few buildings, including living and support quarters. The role of an overseer on a plantation represents an interesting social structure in relation to the rest of the plantation. It clouds the rigid slave-master relationship that has commonly been accepted, opening a third category of white people still subordinate to the owners of the plantation itself. The Oval site offers crucial information to the relationship of all three of these groups.
The service quarters are thought to be slave quarters due to an intriguing feature that was located beneath what would have been the floors of the structure. In one end of the cellar, dug deep into the wall was a hollowed out hole, only a few feet in diameter. These pits are referred to as “sub-floor pits,” and the one in these service quarters was located just under the hearth. It is theorized by various archaeologists that these pits served as a secret hiding spot for personal effects under the floors of the house, outside of the watchful eye of overseers and other oppressive plantation staff who would frown upon, confiscate, or steal such items.
These buildings were constructed largely using a colonial period technique called “Earth-Fast” architecture. This building style involved using large wooden posts to support the structure, and using wooden walls to close it up. The overseer’s house included a brick lined cellar attached to the back of the house, yet nonetheless the main building was constructed in the same Earth-Fast style. The tobacco barn was built utilizing these same post in the ground technique, but made use of side-wall assembly techniques. This meant building the walls horizontally on the ground, then lifting them into place to rest on the large post holes.
The absence of any ceramics contemporary to the 19th century as well as the state of the remnants of the building suggest that these structures were deliberately taken down ca. 1800. This coincides with the massive renovations of the plantation done under Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s ownership during this same time period. The evidence suggests that this site was an early farm complex that was torn down to make way for more fields and other housing arrangements for slaves and their overseer. The layers of soil above the foundation of the house contained only broken and fragmented artifacts that were spread across the area. This state and distribution of artifacts suggests that the area was heavily plowed in the years following, supporting the above theory.
The removal of these buildings may be linked to changing cultural movements of the time. During much of the early 18th century, the colonial preferences, in terms of landscaping, did not dictate any sort of particular building organization. In other words, farmland was farmland and was used as such, with buildings put up wherever they were most convenient to serve their purpose. With the dawn of the English Landscape movement however, things began to change. It became the fashion to have perfectly manicured expanse of lawns and pristine views for the owners of plantations and other land. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that these buildings may have been demolished in accordance with this movement, as the Lees, like modern day people, were subject to trends of their time.
The Field School has not excavated on the site since the summer of 2013, when it confirmed much of what is known about the site as well as unearthing some more ceramic ware and some jewelry. Significantly, however, they uncovered part of what looks like the foundation for a fourth building, likely another barn very similar to the one already discovered. The wealth of artifacts remaining to be catalogued has prevented the field school from returning to the Oval to excavate, however the 2018 Field School worked diligently to catalogue some of these items.
Documents and artifacts that do survive relating to the Oval indicate that in the time between the Lee family’s ownership, which ended in 1822, and the purchase of the site by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation in 1929 indicate that the area was used largely for farming. The installation of the current roads that form the Oval itself occurred sometime during this period.