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A Time to Reflect: How Archaeology is Shaping the Future at Drayton Hall

excavating foundations

Here I am excavating the foundations of Drayton Hall for the structural assessment.

By Sarah Stroud Clarke, Archaeologist and Curator of Collections at Drayton Hall

October is National Archaeology Month and a great time for me to reflect on all of the current activity taking place around the archaeological collections at Drayton Hall. Archaeological excavations began at Drayton Hall when the National Trust for Historic Preservation gained ownership of the property in 1974. Since then there have been numerous archaeological investigations around the “historic core” of the property, mainly the main house of Drayton Hall, the Privy, and the Garden House, resulting in an estimated one million artifacts in our collection!

Eric Snyder screening in the basement

Eric Snyder assisting with screening during our excavations in the basement.

Over the course of the past two years much of my work has focused on one of our largest critical priorities—stabilizing the iconic Drayton Hall portico. The portico work has been an interdisciplinary undertaking and it was my job to work with the structural engineers from Bennett Preservation Engineering to expose portions of Drayton Hall’s foundations in order to see how the foundation walls of Drayton Hall had held up over the course of the past 275 years.

As the project progressed, an extensive excavation was completed in the western end of the Drayton Hall basement directly underneath of the portico in order for a shoring system to be installed without damaging any cultural materials that lay beneath the stone floor. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore the central area of the basement as this area had never before been tested archaeologically. Much to my delight, hundreds of artifacts remained trapped under the heavy stones and once the artifacts are cataloged they will reveal new interpretive narratives for this space that was once full of activity by the enslaved population of Drayton Hall.

DH ArchaeologyOne of the things that is hardest to explain about archaeology is that my work is not finished once the excavations are completed outside. I often tell our visitors that for every hour I spend working in the field it takes an average of eight hours in the laboratory. Drayton Hall has an active archaeology lab and storage space on-site and I am never far from the artifacts. The archaeological process is a long one and I couldn’t possibly undertake this process without the help of a group of very dedicated and hard-working volunteers comprised of Friends of Drayton Hall.

Preservation Wednesday

Preservation Wednesday volunteers hard at work.

Over the past four years, a dedicated group of Drayton Hall Friends has come together the third Wednesday of each month to volunteer with the Archaeology portion of our Preservation and Education Department. The “Preservation Wednesday Group” has collectively spent hundreds of hours washing the excavated archaeological artifacts and I am proud to say that they have officially finished washing all of the artifacts excavated since my arrival at Drayton Hall in 2008—a job that would not have been completed without their generous donation of time!

Me with volunteer Stan Younce who is learning to label.

Me with volunteer Stan Younce who is learning to label.

As we move into the next phase of the archaeological process, the group will learn how to label the clean artifacts and will begin to help me weigh and measure them, after which they will be properly cataloged. Archaeologists used to have to use pens with nibs and India ink to label each artifact, but we are now using an innovative system created by other archaeology labs, such as those at James Madison’s Montpelier and Colonial Williamsburg, in which labels are printed on special paper and then applied to the artifacts using clear Paraloid B-72, which does not harm them. This process will save us considerable time and energy and prepare the artifacts for the next step: cataloging.

We are proud to be the second satellite institution to have the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS) installed on-site (the first was George Washington’s Mt. Vernon) and will use this system to catalog the entirety of the Drayton Hall archaeological collections. This innovative comparative cataloging system was developed at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and now hosts cataloged archaeological collections from the Chesapeake, South Carolina, and the Caribbean.

Drayton Hall Objects at Colonial Williamsburg ExhibitIt is always an honor to partner with other institutions and we are thrilled to be included in a brand new exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Gallery: A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South. The exhibit officially opens in February of 2014 and in addition to the impressive Drayton Hall furniture pieces, a number of archaeological artifacts were selected from the Drayton Hall collections, including this pair of Chinese-export porcelain chocolate cups shown left (click on image for a larger view). From the first quarter of the eighteenth century, they were found in an archaeological feature that pre-dates the construction of Drayton Hall.  Drinking chocolate was made fashionable in London during the late seventeenth century by Sir Hans Sloane who added milk and sugar in order to make it more appetizing. Drayton Hall is fortunate to have such a beautiful  example of early chocolate cups in our collection. Click here for more on this fascinating topic.

You never know what we might find next at Drayton Hall so be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep up with our latest discoveries and read more about Drayton Hall archaeology and other preservation activities in our monthly eNewsletter, Circa.

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