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The Root of the Matter:
Searching for William Hamilton’s Greenhouse
at The Woodlands estate, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Sarah Chesney, a PhD student in the department, tells us about her dissertation research.

         In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, The Woodlands was the home of William Hamilton, a Philadelphia philanthropist and well-known collector of exotic plants. His botanical collection was vast, and was considered by contemporaries to be the most extensive and aesthetically pleasing collection of native and exotic flora in early America. The heart of this collection, and the focus of my dissertation research, is Hamilton’s greenhouse complex, a vast structure stretching 140 feet in length and said to contain over ten thousand rare and exotic plants, which attracted visitors and students of botany from all over the world. For the past two summers I have been conducting archaeological research at The Woodlands, searching for Hamilton’s greenhouse complex and exploring the development of scientific botany in early Federal America.

With the help of student volunteers from Temple University and a dissertation research grant from the William and Mary Anthropology Department in 2010, I have uncovered a partial greenhouse foundation constructed of brick and Pennsylvania fieldstone, as well as other related features. These other features include a large midden full of greenhouse materials and early nineteenth-century domestic trash, as well as a small brick and mortar cistern and connecting brick drain that leads inside the greenhouse complex. Although the spatial relationship of these features is not yet completely understood, their physical proximity raises a number of questions about the layout of the greenhouse complex: it seems possible that the drain, and even part of the cistern may have been actually inside the greenhouse itself and visible to anyone visiting the space.

The conscious display of both utilitarian (the drain and cistern) and aesthetic (the plants arranged to impress a variety of visitors) elements inside the greenhouse complex may indicate the ways in which Hamilton is using this space to negotiate the growing division in the field of botany, as it was at once becoming more “professional” and “scientific” while also becoming increasingly popular as a hobby for the general public. Hamilton’s position as an confirmed amateur botanist and plant collector, but one respected by “professionals” would have been jeopardized by this growing division, and his complicated spatial organization of the greenhouse complex may be evidence for the way in which he dealt with such changes.

I plan to further explore these ideas about the meaning and use of space in Hamilton’s greenhouse complex in the fall of 2011 when I return for my last season of excavation at The Woodlands – knowing full well that everything could change with the first shovelful of dirt.