Sunday, April 14, 2024

Archaeologists Uncover Previously Unknown Building at W&M

Archaeologists excavate the brew house site at the College of William & Mary. Photo by Ian Brickey.
Archaeologists excavate the brew house site at the College of William & Mary. (Ian Brickey/WYDaily)

An archaeological dig at the College of William & Mary has unearthed a previously unknown building from the school’s colonial past.

After more than 10 weeks of excavations, a team of archaeologists from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation think they might have found the college’s brew house, dating from the early to mid-18th century.

Certain artifacts found in the dig indicate the 18-by-11 building being a brewing facility, said Andrew Edwards, the project’s chief archaeologist.

Its lack of a chimney made it unlikely the building was used as either a kitchen or living quarters, and what is now brick rubble could have been a station for heating and cooling beer. Bursar’s records indicate the college purchased hops from the 1730s through the 1770s, and artifacts suggest the building stood until about 1762.

Even with the artifacts, however, the building’s history is somewhat of a mystery. Several documents list smaller buildings around the Wren building, including a kitchen, brew house and laundry, but no college records directly address the structure, and it does not appear on any maps. At the moment, Edwards said the find itself is more important than the building’s possible uses.

“It’s a very important building because it’s hitherto unknown,” Edwards said. “It’s not on any maps. There are no records of it. We really don’t know what it is.”

Various digs have been going on around William & Mary’s historic campus since 2011, and the school has been the site of larger archaeological excavations in the past. However, this most recent discovery began with a construction project.

The college initially planned on widening a brick sidewalk adjacent to the Wren Building. Preliminary excavations for the construction revealed brick debris and the remnants of a building foundation. A team of archaeologists from CWF has been excavating the site since mid-May.

Edwards said the brew house is likely the most interesting part of the excavation, but the site has produced other finds as well. A brick walkway traverses the site, and a garbage pit nearby could hold artifacts from daily life at the colonial college.

While the building is being documented for the first time since the colonial era, the site was not undisturbed. An iron water pipe, likely dating from the 1930s, runs through the site, entering and exiting the building itself. Edwards said it was understandable the earlier construction project overlooked the historic structure.

“It really depends on the attitude of the people digging the trench,” he said.

The current team of archaeologists will leave the site in better condition than the 1930s workmen. Once the excavation is complete, the building’s foundation will be covered with geotextiles — a water permeable material that will protect the bricks without disrupting the natural environment — the pit will be filled with engineering sand, and the walkway construction will begin.

For Edwards, the discovery highlights the remaining historical work to be done in Williamsburg.

“Where there hasn’t been a lot of disturbance,” he said, “there’s probably a lot of things left.”

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