Brafferton Renewal & Renovation

An opportunity for new research.

Preservation work on historic buildings often advances both building technology and historical knowledge. Between 2011 and 2013, William & Mary undertook necessary maintenance and conservation work on the Brafferton, the second oldest building on William & Mary’s Historic Campus. The project installed new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, new plumbing, upgraded electrical and safety features, and performed brick cleaning and repair on the building exterior. The cellar of the building was lowered about eighteen inches to accommodate new mechanical equipment. This extensive renewal and renovation was made possible by the support of the Lettie Pate Evans, Mary Morton Parsons, and Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundations, and the William & Mary Classes of 1961 and 1962.  

The project created the opportunity for archaeologists to help document information about the Brafferton’s original design, construction and use; new information about the evolution of the formal yard of the university; and evidence of the Native Americans who attended the school prior to the Revolutionary War. Led by members of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Architectural and Archaeological Research and accompanied by field school students from William & Mary, the 2011-2012 Brafferton excavations were the first large-scale archaeological effort to focus on the Native American presence in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. The project also consulted with the Brafferton Legacy Group, an advisory body of William & Mary’s Native American alumni.  

Archaeological investigations contributed new evidence about the architectural history of the Brafferton.  Builder’s trenches on the exterior revealed the extent of construction activity for digging out the building cellar in the 1720s. Research on the interior exposed a brick-lined sump that was part of an early system for drawing groundwater in a potentially damp basement. The interior sump connected to another brick-lined sump on the exterior of the building, which acted to collect overflow water from inside. Water from the exterior sump likely had to be emptied by hand with buckets. The sump was filled in at the start of the nineteenth century and contained a sizeable collection of almost 1,900 artifacts, including ceramics, wine bottles, table glass, cutlery and other food-related refuse; evidence of firearm use, ranging from bird shot to cannon balls; and architectural debris. Archaeologists also identified the below-ground portion of an eighteenth-century wrought-iron lightning conductor on the west side of the building. 

Research also revealed new details about the landscape of the university during and after the colonial period. Excavation identified a fence line that predated the building, as well as fences that partitioned the landscape once the building was built. The landscape evidence contributes to understanding the formal east yard of the university and the topiary gardens there, as shown in the 1740s Bodleian view. A portion of a decorative Baroque stone finial [get image] from a gate offers new evidence of access to the university during the colonial period. The project also documented changes to the landscape around the building after the Revolution and between the Civil War and the 1931-32 restoration. 

Among the most intriguing group of finds revealed evidence of knapped tool production at the Brafferton, a process of turning stone or, in this case, glass, into cutting or scraping tools by working an edge into a cutting surface. This Native American technology likely shows activity by boys who attended William & Mary’s Brafferton Indian School during the eighteenth century. Archaeologists found one quartzite biface or scraping tool. Other tools showed how their makers used European-made glass as a material to reshape. One scraping tool or drill was formed from the base of an English stemmed wine glass. Other tool makers used fragments of green wine-bottle glass. This tiny collection of tools is a significant contribution to the material evidence of the Native American experience at the university. 

Representatives of the Brafferton Legacy Group offered guidance and on-site interpretation throughout the course of the project. One member participated in the excavations. The Brafferton Legacy Group held a ceremony honoring the university's Indian School students at the beginning of the project and at the rededication of the building in fall 2013. Research and artifacts informed the 2016 exhibition and symposium “Building the Brafferton,” at William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art.

Further reading: 
  • Brafferton Legacy Group
  • Steven N. Archer, “Wren Yard Excavations 2004-2007,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Department of Architectural and Archaeological Research, 2014.
  • Mark Kostro, with contributions by Alexandra Martin and Edward A. Chappell, “Archaeological Investigations at the Brafferton: A Final Report on the 2011-12 Excavations,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Department of Architectural and Archaeological Research, 2013.
  • Danielle Moretti-Langholtz and Buck Woodard, ed., Building the Brafferton, Muscarelle Museum of Art, forthcoming.