William & Mary

A brew house? Probably, but don’t raise a glass until the lab report’s in

  • Quadcopter-eye view
    Quadcopter-eye view  Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists excavate two digs in one to the south of the Wren Building. A sawpit-midden is near the blue tarp at the left bottom, while a second feature is the foundations of what probably was once a brew house.  Quadcopter photo by Reed Beverstock, Daniel Duane and Stephen Salpukas
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All signs indicate that a brew house once stood in the shadow of the Wren Building, but those inclined to toast the rediscovery of a facility that slaked thirsts at William & Mary 300 years ago should really wait until the lab results are in.

“The clincher is going to come when we send off soil samples to be examined for the presence of grains that were used for brewing,” said Andy Edwards, staff archaeologist at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The foundations were discovered in 2011 by the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research underneath a brick sidewalk on the south side of the Wren Building. Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists initiated a full excavation this year in May and work was extended through most of August as a number of intriguing features came into the light.

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The dig has two unrelated elements. The first is the site of the putative brew house, a set of brick foundations of an 18 x 20 building, with a lean-to addition. The second is an adjacent midden, determined to have been a sawpit used during the rebuilding of the Wren Building after it was damaged by fire in 1705.

Susan Kern, executive director of the Historic Campus, took over supervision of the project from Louise Kale, her predecessor, in mid-August. She said that interpretation of both elements of the dig would yield information about the students, faculty and staff that made up the College community in the early-to-mid 18th century.

Among the period documents that escaped destruction from the numerous fires and battles are some papers that mention the College’s brew house. Additional brewery documentary evidence was uncovered by Terry Meyers, Chancellor Professor of English and immediate past co-director of the Lemon Project, a multi-disciplinary investigation of William & Mary’s relationship with slavery and race.

Meyers discovered notations in the accounts of the College bursar that recorded various payments for hops, including a sum paid in 1755 to the “Nottoway Negroes,” for a shipment of the brewing necessity.

“To my mind, the phrasing was intriguing,” Meyers said. “It shows the College was paying its own slaves for something they were producing—beyond tobacco for the College to market.”

Edwards said soil samples from inside the brew house will be examined for pollen and phytoliths—microscopic silica deposits from plants—specifically for evidence of hops.

“Hops are flowers, essentially, and they have pollen and if hops are around, we should get their signature,” he said.

WMCAR Director Joe Jones knew that the site once held some sort of work building when his group uncovered the foundations in 2011. WMCAR was conducting an archaeological survey of the area in advance of reconstruction of the sidewalk.

“The Historic Campus is just one unbroken scatter of artifacts,” Jones said, “and this site is like a little island of preservation.”

He pointed out that much of the area has been churned up by construction and utility work. The discovery of an unknown—and almost completely intact—set of foundations was important enough to postpone the sidewalk work and begin planning a comprehensive dig.

WMCAR uncovered enough of the foundations to begin hypothesizing about the building’s purpose. Jones said a combination of archaeological evidence, including associated artifacts and the type of mortar used, dated the brickwork to the second quarter of the 18th century. WMCAR was able to determine the building was too large and too substantial to be a privy or a stable. The rectangular shape is wrong for a smokehouse, which are almost always square or octagonal. Educated guesses in 2011 included a kitchen or perhaps quarters for enslaved members of the College workforce.

More clues—and some red herrings—came to light as the 2014 excavations progressed. Excavation revealed a heap of bricks near the center of the foundation. The Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists thought the brick heap was a collapsed chimney, leading to speculation that the site may have been a schoolhouse mentioned in early documents or perhaps a kitchen. Once the jumbled bricks were removed, there was no chimney base underneath and therefore, the building had no chimney. Edwards said the absence of a chimney ruled out a kitchen or a bake house.

Instead of a hearth, the bricks had covered a circular feature that archaeologists think once supported a large kettle. Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Hank Lutton explained that the foundations had wide drains around three sides. Both features are found in Colonial-era breweries.

But, Kern said, the laundry facilities of the day had similar infrastructure and for a while she and the archaeologists considered a laundry as an alternative hypothesis.

The brew house edged out the laundry as a working hypothesis due to a couple of factors. For one thing, Kern said, the washing at the time was probably done away from the school, perhaps in nearby homes. She added that women often took in washing as a way to extend the household economy.

“The other thing is buttons, or rather lack of buttons,” Kern said. “We found some buttons, but no more than you’d expect in any other dig. If this were a laundry, we’d be seeing lots of buttons—lost buttons that fell through the floorboards, broken buttons, just lots and lots of buttons.”

The archaeologists believe that the building was constructed in the 1720s. Presence of five cannonballs and a ceramic fragment of a type that didn’t exist until 1762 leads them to think the building probably survived until about the time of the Revolution.

The pit, the second element of the site, predates the foundations, Edwards said. Edwards said archaeologists have excavated a number of sawpits throughout Williamsburg. He explained how these labor-intensive precursors to the sawmill operated.

“The idea is to saw shaped tree trunks into long boards,” Edwards explained. “You dig a long pit and put your tree trunk above it. Two sawyers flip a coin. The winner stands on top of the tree trunk. If you lose, you get into the pit and work your end of the saw. The guy on top is responsible for keeping the cut straight along the marks and the guy underneath breathes a lot of sawdust.”

Walking down the length of the tree as they cut, the sawyers produced some impressive timbers. Kern said the longest span in the Wren Building is around 48 feet. “The hipped elements are probably about 26 feet long, plus a little more to make a joint,” she said. “That’s pretty big stuff.”

After the builders were finished with the sawpit, it became a handy garbage dump. The archaeologists found the pit filled with all manner of 18th-century food-related trash as well as the odd treasure, such as a 17th-century Chinese tea bowl emblazoned with yin and yang symbols. It’s all valuable to archaeologists and historians, who will examine the contents of the pit in labs to help fill out the picture of college life in the Colonial period.

“The excavation is the visible part of archaeology, but now there’s going to be years of lab work,” Kern said. She explained that oyster shells would yield data about their growth rates and the season of harvest, information that might tie in with research on the riverbeds in colonial days. Faunal specialists will assemble schedules of the ages of animals when they were slaughtered for meat. Some insights into 18th century life at William & Mary don’t have to wait for a lab report, though.

“They ate very well,” Edwards said, nodding at the dense mass of large oyster shells, bones from roasts, broken crockery and other remains from William & Mary’s student meal plan, circa 1735. That was a time in which about a third of the enrollment of fifty or so students would be Native American youth from the Indian School, housed in the Brafferton. Not much is known about this group of alumni, still less about the people, free and enslaved, who performed non-instructional functions at William & Mary in its early years.

“Both of these finds give us a look at other populations here on the campus. When we talk about a college, we think about instructors and students and college presidents, but having a brew house makes us think about all of those other people,” Kern said. “There are people growing and selling hops and actually making the food. We can think about the people who did the carting and about a contractor who is bringing in people—presumably slaves—to saw timbers. It puts a whole different population of people in this space. And that’s really exciting.”