For the next several months your ticket to the Art Museums at Colonial Williamsburg will come with a side of archaeology! Undeterred by the winter cold, archaeologists are excavating the site of the Galt Cottage, located in what is, today, the Museums parking lot. Had you visited the Galt cottage in the 18th century, however, you would have found it tucked conveniently behind the Public Hospital, at the edge of a ravine.
The Revolutionary War period Frenchman’s Map (1782) shows where it stood.
It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to conjure a picture of the Galt cottage. In fact, we have several pictures! It survived in this location until 1929 when it was moved to Duke of Gloucester Street, across from Bruton Parish Church.
In the 1950s it was moved a second time, to Tyler Street, where it remains today. Our efforts, in digging the site this winter, are focused not so much on the house (which is well recorded) but on the people who lived there, and on the surrounding landscape. By the spring of 2017, when construction work begins on the Museums expansion, all of that information—in the form of artifacts, topography, and environmental samples—will be in jeopardy.
Fortunately, we have had time to plan. In looking at historic map overlays during review of the expansion plans, we noticed that one narrow slice of land had escaped both construction of the James City County Courthouse in the 1960s and construction of the museums in the 1980s. Within that slice (according to the Frenchman’s Map) lay the Galt Cottage. But it wasn’t easy to get to.
Archaeological testing early in the fall showed that the cottage remains lay buried under as much as seven feet of fill, used to level the parking lot. And so this project got off to an unusual start…with a backhoe. Mechanical assistance allowed us to peel the site back a more natural topography, sloping from west to east.
While a backhoe is great for heavy lifting, it’s not as delicate an instrument. Over the last month, we have been cleaning the surface of the site, hand-excavating to a uniform layer that appears to represent the early 20th century. The work has included removing a great deal of brick rubble from the deepest end of the site. Now that this task is nearly finished, we’ll begin mapping and excavating the final chapters (the early 20th century) of the Galt Cottage. From there, we move forward…and into the past.
Here are some things to look for when you visit us during the winter. Look closely at the east end of the site. You may be able to see a near-perfect outline of where the Galt Cottage walls once stood. What you’re looking at is a “robber’s trench,” where bricks have been salvaged from the foundation. Removing the bricks leaves a void, which often becomes packed with debris: chunks of mortar and brick bits. Any artifacts that fall into this trench help to date when the building was dismantled—something that, in this case, we already know from documentary sources.
Also at the east end of the site you’ll notice a few stone sills and a line of bricks representing the Galt Cottage’s entrance and west wall. Look closely and you may even be able to find these same architectural artifacts in the image above.
In our early weeks of cleaning the site, discovery of an unrelated brick corner suggests the possibility that another building lies within the site boundaries. Earlier? Later? Time will tell.
One feature that adds to the archaeological interest of this project is the ravine at the east end of the excavation. The Galt Cottage was perched on the edge of this ravine, which undoubtedly served as convenient dumping spot for household trash. We look forward to learning more about successive generations of the Galt family, and about the connection between this dwelling and the hospital, through the recovery and study of artifacts discarded there.
Equally exciting, however, is what we stand to learn about Williamsburg’s original terrain, and about the natural environment, recorded in the form of pollen, phytoliths, and other botanical evidence. The plan is to dig a two-meter-wide trench through the middle of the ravine, allowing us to capture its profile and sample its contents without digging the entire deposit.
Excavation at the Galt Cottage site will continue through the winter. We appreciate your curiosity, so please stop by the site to keep tabs on our progress.
Guest Blogger: Meredith Poole
Meredith has been with Colonial Williamsburg for almost 30 years and says she knew she wanted to be an archaeologist when she was just 11 years old! Meredith received her MA in Anthropology from the College of William & Mary and her BA from Hamilton College. She enthusiastically led the charge in organizing and implementing Colonial Williamsburg’s Kid’s Dig. If you see her out in the Historic Area, be sure to say hello!