Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Material Culture

The Road to Mattox and Washington’s Birthplace.

One of the reasons I am so interested in making sense of this landscape is that its residents have centuries of dealing with the relationship between land and water. Of course much of the landscape is hard by creeks and rivers. That might just be a regular fact of life, except that the Potomac has been gaining in force driven by changes to the overall climate and ecosystem. At GeWa this means that archaeological sites like the Henry Brooks site are threatened by coastal erosion. More than threatened really–the site is falling into the river. But managing water here has been a problem for centuries. Large and deep drainage ditches are also one of the most fascinating parts of the landscape and I believe they have quite a bit to tell about where and how people lived on, used, and understood this landscape.

That is a part of why making sense of the maps is so important to me as I try to unpack this landscape.  Here is a problem though that is bothering me. Return to Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 survey and map which are a major touchstone for me. Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 2.43.17 PMThe western border of the Washington land Lamkin surveyed was the road he called the Road to the Burnt House–it is the backwards L I have highlighted in this close up photo. The ultimate destination and name of that road is a question in and of itself, but for now, let’s focus on the spur that breaks off to its south–also highlighted here. Lamkin called this eastbound spur the Road to Washington’s Mill. Indeed, there was a mill at the head of Pope’s Creek for ages–the remains of its 20c iteration are still there to be seen. The area is now called Potomac Mills–not be confused with the giant mall on I-95 near DC. Right where Lamkin has written “Washington’s” there is another road forking with a spur headed back westward–making for a sort of backwards Z of a road.

Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 2.42.56 PM

Upside down clip of Lamkin’s map showing his Road to Mattox.

It is that last spur–the west heading one–that is troubling me. Lamkin called it Road to Mattox. That would seem to be a reference to Mattox Creek which is the other large creek bounding this land on the west just as Pope’s Creek bounds it to the east. The problem is that it makes no sense to me for the road to Mattox to be here. The Road to the Burnt House seems to end at the head of Bridge’s Creek–the small creek in the middle of the land. The road’s westward turn–the bottom of the backwards L–runs back to King’s Highway which was the main road down the peninsula and more or less survives today as Route 3. That road itself would have run past the head of Mattox, so why then would a road headed there run south of that road when the whole creek is in fact north of King’s Highway. Take a look at the Google Maps screen grab I am posting below and see if you can follow my reasoning. There are a few options. One is that Mattox refers to something other than the creek, but I doubt that. More likely is that this Road to Mattox in fact links back to King’s Highway somewhere close by, but off the map. On Lamkin’s map, both The Road to the Burnt House and The Road to Mattox cut off before we see where they are going–but notice how they both are headed more or less the same direction. It is easy to imagine Kings Highway running up and down just to the left of this map with both roads connecting to it there.

This is the sort of unspooling one has to do when trying to make sense in detail of these sorts of landscapes. One is always working from scraps and no one is going to come in and set you straight. Part of what makes this so important to work out is that local naming practices are valuable clues to how the roads functioned as part of the larger human social network. Every road has at least two directions–two destinations. Thus, the choice to highlight one direction in a name over another says a lot about how the road functioned and how people understood these places. Why is this the Road to Mattox and not the Road to Washington’s Mill–after all it went there as well?  That was a choice. Whose eyes are we seeing through? What does it mean that The Road to the Burnt House seems to be named for something at its eastern end, while the Road to Mattox is named for something at its west? After all, the Road to the Burnt House was also a road to Mattox via King’s Highway–n’est pas? These are choices here and those tell us something about how this place worked. The past people are trying to tell us us something in this subtle way.  Maps kick ass!

Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 2.58.48 PM.png

Mattox Creek is at the left and Pope’s Creek is right. GeWa is marked with the pin. You can see Potomac Mills at the head of the creek and also note that it sits on Rt 3–the old run of King’s Highway. The section of Lamkin’s map I shared is all happening between GeWa and the place called here Wakefield Corner (a 20c name). That run of Rt 3 between Wakefield Corner and Potomac Mills is what I think Lamkin’s roads are linking to.

Advertisements

George Washington’s Birthplace on C-SPAN.

George Washington’s Birthplace Map and Art.

We need some background. George Washington’s birthplace is in Westmoreland County, Virginia. It is just off of Route 3 about 40 miles east of Fredericksburg. If you drive out to visit there you can also swing by Stratford Hall a few miles farther east and see one of the most remarkable eighteenth-century Virginia homes. Washington’s Birthplace–some times called Pope’s Creek, other times called by its mid-18c name Wakefield–is owned and run by the National Park Service. The site’s NPS name is GeWa (first two letters of a site’s first two names), and I have gotten pretty used to that name. But GeWa is not an easy site to interpret to visitors. There was not much left of the old Washington homestead above ground by the start of nineteenth century. The location of the home—the Washington birth home—that so many have wanted to find has been a mystery since then. Everything built that is visible today is new–and error riddled. For a deeper background on the colonial history of the site and how the park has reported it, take a look at this Cultural Landscape Inventory. It is a good survey of the land ownership history and some of the challenges. It also embeds some of the assumptions we are now challenging.

076birthplace

This is Benson Lossing’s etching of the stone Parke Custis left at the site. Lossing never saw the stone. 

In 1815 George Washington Parke Custis and friends placed a commemorative stone where they thought the home had been, but they relied on the memory of others to locate the site. Since then the focus has been on where that stone had been. Even in the 1920s as the nation was getting ready for the Washington birth bicentennial, debate still focused on a chain of memory used to locate the lost stone. Independent evidence—like archaeology—was made to fit with stories and privileged memories rather receive its just due as an authoritative and independent stream of information. The park is now working to correct the confused mix of stories that have held sway for decades, and I am glad to be helping.

Gewa paintingThis NPS commissioned painting is a fine representation of the fanciful landscape as imagined by the 1920s folks, here painted with newer understandings of outbuildings layered onto it. It is not a bad vision of an 18c Virginia plantation–it’s just that it is composed of made up parts. No such plantation existed here. The painting shows the fanciful 1920s Memorial House Museum as the Washington home. It was not. In fact, there was very little actual research that went into its building. It was a vanity project by an autonomous group of commemorators and the home looks like a cross between Gunston Hall and Twifford which was the home of the main backer’s grandmother.

twiford-king-george-county-virginia-1024

This is a Historic American Building Survey photo of Twifford in King George County, Virginia. 

Not only that, but they sat their brick version of Twifford atop the remains of a curious outbuilding—remains which were destroyed in the building process. The rest of landscape is more imagination than anything else. We saw the same thing at Ferry Farm where an iconic set of errors were reinscribed with each new rendering giving new life over and over to old error. Nevertheless, this painting captures what visitors to the site see (more or less) and what rangers work so hard to clarify. It is a difficult task since so much of the available information and art is working against their efforts to share a better understanding. The little white outline on the right has been called Building X. That is the set of brick foundation features—excavated in 1930 and 1936 and which we re examined in 2013. These have been labeled the real Washington birth home, but that is a dubious claim at best. The whole site is a work in progress.

Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 1.39.26 PM

Returning to the 1897 USGC map shows a bit more of this site from a similar angle. What the map labels as “Monument” is the site of the Memorial House Museum. That straight road that runs away from it now extends all the way down to Rt 3. When this map was drafted though, visitors arrived by steam boat on a Potomac dock at the end of the straight road running to the left past the Granary.

George Washington’s Birthplace Puzzles

I have been pretty obsessed with the landscape of George Washington’s birthplace of late. I first worked with the place’s records in 2008 or so when I was still putting together Ferry Farm’s story. As I wrote about therein, there was an adversarial relationship between the 1920s backers of the Birthplace project—the one that led to the creation of what the Park Service now calls “The Memorial House Museum,” and promoters for Ferry Farm. That conflict led me to the Park Service’s Birthplace archive to check out their files.

In 2013, I conducted a review of the site’s 1930s archaeology and with Ranger Amy Muraca and Alena Pirok, now of Georgia Southern, we showed that the current understanding of the site is not exactly supported by the archaeological record. Joy Beasley wrote an excellent short review of the place’s story and the battle between two buildings and their backers for the title of Washington’s birth home if you need a catch up. Our argument’s long and short though is that what is commonly called ‘Building X’ and considered the birth home is so contradiction ridden, that at best it makes a poor case for being that home. At worst it is all wrong and the home is elsewhere on the land.

The matter of the building cannot be settled without a re-excavation of the site. What I want to share here in blog form though is what I am seeing in the old maps of the landscape. I am trying to make sense of the old road system and the fragments we see of it in survey maps and other sources. Roads bear on the ages of buildings and all it speaks to how the landscape functioned in the eighteenth century. This is a puzzle—and like all puzzles, it is pretty absorbing. I have been at this for a while, so I am going to jump in where I am. There is no easy entry point, so any one is as good as any other.

But let’s begin with a clipping from the 1897 USGS survey map. That map built on an earlier one from the 1870s and incorporated a lot of collected information—some good, some bad. By this time, there were already commemorative efforts to mark Washington’s Birthplace, and that information is on the map. Much of it is wrong—but the drafters were not worried about that. What I like about this map though is that elements of the early 19c maps are still there and presumably still part of daily life for locals. The big straight roads you see are new ones built by the commemorators. The smaller crinklier ones are the old road system—the one now covered by trees and largely forgotten. That is the system I am trying to figure out.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 2.34.44 PM

1897 USGS map of George Washington’s Birthplace in Westmoreland County, Virginia

 

Remnantology Manifesto

I have been considering this for some time. Alena Pirok and I have discussed this for ages and this last fall she had her Armstrong State undergrads explore the remnantology concept. They posted their images on Instagram and it was a real treat to see them play with the idea. But what is the idea? Obviously, I think enough of it to have named my blog after it. But I have yet to fully put into words just what I mean by it. It was one of my only attempts to coin, or re-coin a term. The word itself comes from a subfield of botany and biology, but I see huge material resonances in it. I am working on the chapter ideas for the book on this, but for my own clarity, and for others’ as well, I have sketched out the start of a Remnantology Manifesto that begins to put in words what I can see in the periphery.

The Remnantology Manifesto

Human beings have been busy changing this planet to suit their needs ever since the two Remnant001first met. Those who know, inform us that the human species’ ability to manipulate its environment to suit its specific needs is the principal evolutionary advantage these animals have had over others. This has meant that human history has been filled with the making and remaking and remaking yet again of the places humans have called home. This endless game of revision and modification has left the world littered with remnants—each change large or small displaces something that was there first. In some areas, the change can be dramatic—say for example a farm field transformed into a subdivision. Other times though change can be as light as simple reordering, a shifting around of elements, a layering of one way of using a space atop another. Uses, ornaments, components, can be swallowed up by remaking, renovation, and host of other intentional changes. But there is a separate class of artifacts that just stay where there are unchanged, un-reused, and overlooked. These bits are not in the way enough to cause trouble to how things are being reordered, nor do they need to change to be part of something new. They no longer matter—and at the same time, they are in no one’s way so they illicit no fuss or concern to remove or change them. These objects are Remnantology.

Principle One: Remnantology is a species of Stratigraphy.

In archaeology, the concept of stratigraphy rules the roost. This is the idea that layers form over time and in the perfect conditions, as you move down through the layers, you move “back in time.” The fundamental principal of excavation is the removal of layers (as well as other fills and features) in an orderly fashion to record each and in so doing go deeper in space and deeper in time. Not so with Remnantology—it can be observed, but it cannot be removed to reveal more. It just exists. Yet, Remnantology shares stratigraphy’s understanding of accretion, but the implied horizontality is not there. Remnantology has no layers, but it has superimposition.

Photo Dec 02, 13 49 41Principle Two: Remnantology is Material.

It must exist. It must be a thing—you can touch it, break it, throw things at it. It can be painted, crushed, or stepped on. It must be observable. Remnantology is composed of the things left behind, things that once were vital to how life worked, but have been left behind in some version of their useful state.

Principle Three: Remnantology Hides in Plain Sight.

We are all surrounded by Remnantology—it is fundamental to how the material world is ordered. The challenge is to re-orient how we see what we see, and what we understand of what we see. In that way, Remnantology is way of seeing the world.

Principle Four: Repurposing is not Remnantology.

Repurposing is an act of intentionality. To take a thing, tidy it up, and find a new use for it is really to reintegrate it back into how life is lived. This is fine—valuable even. But it is not Remnantology.

Principle Five: Hate is not the Opposite of Love—indifference is. Remnantology resides in Indifference.

Being overlooked is crucial to being Remnantology. Hatred leads to removal and demolition. Love leads to fetishizing and repurposing. Remnantology is in the middle. Forgotten.

2017-12-02 10.39.29Principle Six: Abandonment is not Remnantology.

Many Remnantology objects seem to be abandoned—and indeed many are left behind. But abandonment is a category unto itself. Garbage is abandoned, a burned out car is abandoned, a home can be abandoned. None of these though are Remnantology. Like Remnantology, abandonment entails a thing no longer being needed for its intended purpose. But, something abandoned is in some way hindering something else’s function. Garbage will eventually be cleaned up. The burned out car is blocking a street or a parking space and is itself a species of nuisance. The abandoned home is in a transitional state—on its way towards demolition or rediscovery—and in the meanwhile is stopping something else from occurring. Remnantology on the other hand, impedes nothing, interferes with no vital action or activity, and not in a transitional state. It just exists.

%d bloggers like this: