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

George Washington’s Birthplace on C-SPAN.

I’d forgotten about this–but here is a quick visual overview of the challenges posed and questions raised by the site’s 1930s archaeology.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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