Mere steps away from the Brafferton, College archaeologists were unearthing a set of undocumented brick building foundations—“a little island of preservation” hidden for centuries.
“It is wonderful that our colonial campus, about which so much is known, still can surprise us after all these centuries,” said Louise Kale, director of William & Mary’s Historic Campus. The discovery gained national attention and coverage by the Associated Press and The Washington Post.
College archaeologists say the partially unearthed foundation looks to be the remains of “a fairly massive outbuilding,” almost certainly associated with slaves who worked at William & Mary in the early 18th century. The foundation runs 20 feet east-west and more than 16 feet north-south. The remains extend underneath a sidewalk south of the Wren Building. The discovery prompted postponement of repairs to the sidewalk.
The precise location of the foundation has been recorded and the areas exposed for examination have been filled in. The College is already making plans for a complete archaeological excavation of the site.
Joe Jones, director of the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR), said that the foundation could reliably be dated to the 18th century by the type of mortar used. Other contextual clues led him to believe that construction of the foundation may date as early as the second quarter of the century. Such a figure would put the foundation as somewhat more recent than the Wren Building, which was constructed between 1695 and 1700.
“It’s a substantial outbuilding or dependency,” Jones said. “Based on the time period, where it’s located and the dimensions, it’s probably a specific-function building like a kitchen building or maybe quarters for slaves.”
Neil Norman, ACLS/Mellon Foundation New Faculty Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, says the foundation is relatively substantial—three brick courses wide—a finding that tends to eliminate some functions from discussion of the building’s purpose.
“It’s probably not a privy, probably not a stable, probably not a smokehouse,” he said. “Those kinds of structures are usually wooden and relatively ephemeral. If you are going to invest money into durable materials and energy into creating what, back then, was a relatively massive structure, then it’s something intended to endure.”
Norman is a specialist in the archaeology of Africa and the African diaspora. He is a participant in the College’s Lemon Project, an ongoing initiative that examines the relationship of the College with slavery.
Norman says that artifacts still in the ground might show that the building had served several different functions over the years.
“If it was associated with laundry, you might find buttons that were worn and discarded after they were replaced,” he explained. “It would be a real boon to find a kitchen area. That would give us a window into cuisine and food preparation. Given that elite young colonial men were educated at the College, Native Americans at the Brafferton, and Africans and African Americans at the Bray School, it would be interesting to see what types of artifacts and food remains are represented.”
Both Jones and Norman agree on the need for a thorough archaeological examination of what Jones believes will be the important strata below the foundation brickwork. Jones rates the site “a solid 10” in terms of archaeological potential, as indications show that it’s relatively undisturbed.
“This site is like a little island of preservation,” Jones said. “In every direction, if you go more than three, four or five feet out, you get into areas of massive ground disturbance. You can take five steps, and it’s a jumble.”
—Joseph M. McClain