November 23, 2004
Decades of archaeology at the Peyton Randolph property reveal history hidden in the ground
The earliest archaeological excavations of the Peyton Randolph property were conducted in 1938-40 and 1955 by Colonial Williamsburg’s Architecture Department. These excavations were designed primarily to discover remnants of foundations of buildings that existed on the property during the 18th century.
The 1938-40 excavations revealed evidence of the “east wing” portion of the Peyton Randolph House -- portrayed on the famous Frenchman’s Map of 1781, drawn by a French soldier locating all of the town’s structures prior to the siege of Yorktown, but no longer standing in the 20th century – and several outbuildings. Unfortunately, significant artifacts not of an architectural nature may have been disregarded and lost due to the singular purpose of the excavation.
The 1955 excavations consisted of systematic cross-trenching – digging parallel trenches down to subsoil. The method was particularly effective in locating brick foundations. Once a foundation was encountered, excavation followed the foundation, exposing the extent of the building. Seven structures and a well were identified during the 1955 excavation.
The third excavations were a preliminary investigation of a portion of one of the outbuildings located during the 1955 cross-trenching expedition. These were conducted in the winter of 1977-78 by the Department of Archaeology under the direction of Ivor Noël Hume. This brief excavation was the first carried out by a trained archaeologist on the property.
An intensive archaeological investigation of the back yard of the Peyton Randolph House took place from the summer of 1982 to the spring of 1985. Although previous archaeological work had been done during the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, new methods and techniques as well as a more modern research design required further, more detailed exploration of the area.
In addition to the task of uncovering the foundations of the fifteen outbuildings that stood behind the house during various periods, the project was used as an experimental laboratory for testing archaeological methods and techniques new to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation archaeology. Such methods included open-area excavation, the Harris Matrix System, computer entry of context and artifact data, and systematic recovery of floral and faunal remains.
Aside from the outbuilding foundations, such features as walkways, fence lines, garden patches, and work areas were defined. Beginning with the assumption that changes in the property ownership are reflected in the archaeological record and can be evidenced in the analysis of the site, the archaeology culminated in an interpretation of the way the yard was used during various periods spanning over 250 years.
The excavation performed another important function for the Foundation: the interpretation of an on-going archaeological site to Colonial Williamsburg guests. This aspect of the project proved quite successful and has been continued at other archaeological excavations in the Historic Area since then.