Thursday, April 18, 2024

Colonial Williamsburg’s former grazing ground becomes site for archaeological investigation

On Tuesday, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced they would be starting a new archaeological excavation at Curtis Square. (WYDaily/Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)
On Tuesday, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced they would be starting a new archaeological excavation at Custis Square. (WYDaily/Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)

Steeped in the world of history, archaeologists at Colonial Williamsburg will begin a new hunt for treasures of the past.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced Tuesday it would begin a new multi-year excavation of Custis Square on Francis Street between South Nassau Street and the Colonial Parkway.

“More than 90 years after its establishment, Colonial Williamsburg continues to pursue a fuller understanding of 18th-century America, its people and their culture in order to tell our shared American story more fully,” said Mitchell B. Reiss, Colonial Williamsburg president and chief executive officer, in a news release.

The funding for the project comes from Jacqueline Badger Mars Landmark Investments 8, LLC Charitable Lead Trust and is expected to provide 10 new archaeological employment positions over the years.

Joe Straw, spokesman for Colonial Williamsburg, did not respond to calls and emails to discuss specifics.

“We are enormously grateful for the generous gift that has launched the Custis Square project, and we look forward to sharing both our work and our findings with visitors of all ages,” Reiss said in the news release.

Custis Square is the former home and gardens of John Custis IV, the head of a prosperous mid-17th century family that settled on Virginia’s shores. Custis came to Williamsburg in 1715 after his wife died of smallpox.

Once here, he became a member of the royal Governor’s Council and expanded his interest in horticulture by building an elaborate garden on his four acre-property, according to the foundation.

Since then, the land has undergone a number of changes. In 1851, the property was purchased and the Current Eastern State Hospital built on the land and used the area as a park. More than a century later in 1966, the property was bought by Colonial Williamsburg.

There were small-scale excavations in the 1960’s that uncovered the foundations of the original property. While a structure known as “Custis Kitchen” stood on the site, the investigation revealed an older kitchen, a smokehouse, and other evidence of a six-chimney building, according to the foundation.

Currently, the area is used as a grazing pasture for animals in the Colonial Williamsburg coach and livestock department.

The new investigation will be more in-depth thanks to new methods and technology such as remote sensing and materials analysis.

“The shared history we interpret at Colonial Williamsburg is not static. It grows daily, enhanced by the research of our team and our peers,” said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg director of archaeology, in the news release. “Our new investigation of Custis Square is thrilling both in scale and subject matter, given all we stand to learn about the people who lived and worked on this ground early in an era of political and scientific enlightenment.”

The investigation will cover areas ranging from the flora and aesthetic of the Custis gardens to evidence of pre-historic occupation.

Over a few years, the project will be completed in a series of four phases. The first will be site mapping and surveying in 2019, followed by an open excavation of the garden area from 2020 to 2021. Then from 2022 to 2023 there will be an open excavation of the outbuildings with a look at the lives of enslaved residents on the property.

The final stage will be the process of cataloging and reporting from 2024 to 2025.

Continuous updates on the project can be found on Colonial Williamsburg’s social media pages as well as the Making History Blog.

During this time, Colonial Williamsburg is also planning to construct a new public archaeological collection to house more than 60 million artifacts. The project is funded by a donation from Forrest Mars Jr., a well-known benefactor of Colonial Williamsburg. Mars gave $10 million to the project before he died in 2015, according to the foundation.

In an email, Straw said there was no further information about the construction since its announcement in 2015.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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