June 17, 2013
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I have a team of graduate students hard at work at the George Washington Birthplace National Shrine in Westmoreland County Va.
Memorial House at the birthplace site of George Washington. The foundation outline in the foreground is believed to be the actual location of Washington’s boyhood home, which burned down in 1779. George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County, Virginia. 30px (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
They are working under the supervision of Ranger Amy Muraca and are being funded by the NPS to make sense out of a series of excavations dating back to the 1930s. We call this sort of work Forensic Archaeology since it involves working with a problematic record we did not create. We might also call this particular project an example of Cold Case Archaeology. Our goal is to try to understand what has long been called “Building X” and is interpreted as being the home where Washington was born. The problems are legion as Joy Beasley outlined in what remains the best piece on the site. To being with, the building is a sort of impossibility—architecture by M.C. Escher, if you can picture that. It seems clear that the outlines of what could be four or five rooms (all that survives are brick cellar footprints and nothing above ground) represent varied building episodes and could not have all stood together at the same time. Yet that is just how the building(s) has been understood—and sometimes quite smugly at that. Our job this summer is to untangle this mess and begin to speak from the data—perhaps for the first time in the site’s life.
Already I have been seeing some problems for the current interpretation. The layers in the cellars’ fill do not point to a single filling episode. Also, a major house fire is a crucial part of the current story and interpretation. The evidence for that fire is fading fast, just as did that of the Ferry Farm house fire. On top of that, the dates of the artifacts are not working either if they are supposed to match the current story. In short, it is a mess. But in a few weeks we will have the beginnings of a whole new and data-centered understanding for “Building X.” I will be presenting a paper on this all at the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Quebec, Canada, but I am also seeing that there is whole book to be done on this fascinating and confusing landscape. For now though, we just need to move slowly ahead and make out charts and spreadsheets and reserve judgment.
English: Artifacts on exhibit at Visitors’ Center, George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One thing that makes this very exciting, is that this is an “inside job,” that is to say that this is the park reassessing itself—we are just the labor in that task. It is great to be part of the park’s ongoing and evolving understanding of itself. It is also great for students to have such an important hands-on role in this sort of research.
 Joy Beasley, “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument” in Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape, Paul A. Shackel, ed. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 197-220.