Since 2000, Fairfield Foundation archaeologists have investigated the historic landscape of Fairfield Plantation in Abingdon Parish, Gloucester County, Virginia. The Fairfield Quarter is located approximately 75 feet west of the 1694 manor house. Archaeologists found the site while investigating high concentrations of artifacts coinciding with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) anomalies within the 60-acre plantation core (Bevan 2001; Brown and Harpole 2003). Initial excavations revealed an ash-filled subfloor pit and scattered postholes.
During the summers of 2001 and 2004, Fairfield archaeologists expanded the excavation area in all directions, revealing the full extent of the quarter structure, a possible addition, and evidence that may indicate a second quarter. In 2005, excavations to the south revealed a post-in-ground structure and evidence of a possible kiln predating the quarters which could relate to the construction of the manor house in the 1690s.
Very few records survive for Fairfield Plantation. Most of Gloucester County’s colonial and antebellum records were lost to fires in 1821 and 1865. There is no collection of Burwell family records pertaining to Fairfield Plantation and the few documents that do survive seldom mention changes in the surrounding landscape, such as the construction and destruction of slave quarters. There are occasional references to buildings in tax records and to slave occupations, particularly during the management of the estate by Robert “King” Carter from 1720 to 1732. Unfortunately, none of these references can be directly tied to the Fairfield quarter discussed here.
What we do know about the occupation of the Fairfield Quarter from documentary evidence is related primarily to the larger context of the plantation core. The property was patented by Lewis Burwell I in 1648 and he moved his family there shortly thereafter. After his death in 1653, his wife remarried twice and she continued to reside at Fairfield with her husbands and children until her death in 1675. Lewis Burwell II built the large brick manor house in 1694. Archaeological evidence suggests this shifted the focus of the plantation to a relatively unused area, several hundred feet northwest of where the previous residence was likely located. The plantation remained in the Burwell family through the end of the Revolutionary War and then passed to the Thruston family.
The earliest surviving plat of the property was drawn in 1787 but does not indicate the manor house or any surrounding buildings. A second plat was drawn during the division of the estate in 1847 and includes a sketch of the manor house as well as a nearby kitchen. The plat divided the manor house and kitchen in half, indicating that the kitchen was approximately one hundred feet south of the Fairfield Quarter excavation.
Despite the paucity of documentary evidence regarding the plantation’s colonial residents and landscape, historian Lorena Walsh (1997:228-263) has compiled a list of the slaves owned by the Fairfield Burwells along with available information about occupations, marriages, baptisms, and vital statistics. In addition, the Robert Reade Thruston papers at the Filson Club Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky contain references to slaves and slave life at the plantation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. However, an initial review of this collection does not indicate significant references to quarters near the Fairfield manor house and only occasional references to that elsewhere on the plantation.
Excavation history, procedure and methods
In 2001, during the investigation of a GPR anomaly, Fairfield archaeologists David Brown, Thane Harpole, and Anthony Smith excavated a block of seven 5-by-5 foot test units approximately 85 feet to the west of the 1694 manor house. The area was selected for the GPR study after shovel testing at 25-foot intervals revealed significant concentrations of artifacts in the plowed soils. After identifying a subfloor pit and significant concentrations of eighteenth-century artifacts in the plowzone, sixteen additional units were excavated, uncovering a roughly twenty-five foot square area. Within this area archaeologists identified two burnt-subsoil concentrations (Features 78 and 79) likely associated with hearths as well as numerous postholes, tree holes, and rodent burrows.
The initial seven plowzone units were excavated by hand and all soils were passed through ¼-inch screen. Brick, mortar, and oyster and clam shell fragments larger than one-inch-square were retained, counted, and weighed. The additional units were excavated carefully by a machine excavator with a flat-blade bucket. Sediment from these units also passed through ¼-inch mechanical screen, but all artifacts were retained regardless of size.
Feature excavation continued during the summers of 2002 and 2003. The southern half of the subfloor pit (Feature 8) was excavated in three natural layers with 10-liter samples floated from layers B and C and the remainder waterscreened through 1/16-inch window mesh. The east half of a posthole (Feature 9) cut through the subfloor pit and was excavated and screened through ¼-inch wire mesh prior to the excavation of Feature 8. All sampled features were bisected. The soil from subfloor pits and cellars was floated, while the soils from all other features were waterscreened through 1/16-inch window mesh.
During the summers of 2004 and 2005, Brown and Harpole expanded the excavation area to the south and east after a large, burnt area was identified prior to the installation of the quarter’s interpretive sign. The excavations revealed a possible cellared addition to the structure above Feature 8 as well as a third subfloor pit that may have been associated with a second, later quarter. The large burnt area appears to predate the quarters and may be related to a surface kiln or brick clamp associated with the manor house construction in the 1690s. Additional postholes, related to the quarters and perhaps fencelines and other landscape features, were found throughout the area. Two substantially larger postholes were found in the southwest corner of the excavation area and are most likely related to a post-in-ground structure south of the quarters.
A total of thirty-nine units were excavated during the final two summers, resulting in an approximately forty-five foot square excavation area. These units were excavated by hand, but the same recovery protocol was retained as that employed during the mechanical excavation. Archaeologists sampled the majority of features within the excavation area, quartering the second subfloor pit (Feature 87) and the larger cellar (Feature 88). Excavation of the large cellar and the burnt areas (Features 89 and 129) are not yet complete.
Heavy plowing occurred throughout the excavation area, resulting in the prevalence of deep scars through many of the features. Two and occasionally three directions of plowing were found in the eastern two-thirds of the area, extending up to 0.4 feet into the subsoil and features. Rodent burrows impacted the first subfloor pit (Feature 8) and the larger cellar (Feature 88). No other modern intrusions were found in the excavation area. Archaeologists recorded the opening and closing elevations for the corners and center of the majority of plowzone units and for the opening and closing of all sampled features. Soil chemistry samples were retained for the majority of plowzone units and features but have not been analyzed.
Summary of research and analysis
Brown and Harpole’s analysis of the Fairfield Quarter excavation is ongoing, but some initial conclusions can be made. The earliest use of the area was likely associated with the manufacture of bricks for use in the manor house constructed in 1694 or with an early eighteenth-century addition to the house. The large, burnt area (Features 89 and 129) is one of the few features impacted by the cellar (Feature 88) associated with an earlier quarter structure. While Features 89 and 129 have not yet been sampled, there are no artifacts present on their surface that suggests a fill date. There are a handful of seventeenth-century artifacts in the plowzone, but few appear related to the quarters.
The domestic occupations appear to focus on two structures, each associated with a subfloor pit. Feature 8 and the burnt subsoil areas to the east and west (Features 78 and 79) likely represent an early quarter dating to the first half, and possibly first quarter, of the eighteenth century. Based on artifact concentrations in the plowzone and the location of the three features, the quarter measured approximately 10-by-22 feet and was likely divided into two rooms. The building was oriented east to west, following the orientation of the manor house, and had exterior gable chimneys. An addition may have spanned the entire length of the southern façade, suggesting that the main entrance was to the north, similar to the manor house. The presence of a posthole along the southern façade (Feature 54) may indicate a secondary doorway. Within this 7-by-25 foot addition was a cellar (Feature 88), measuring 4-by-9 feet and taking up the eastern half of the addition. Small postholes along the edges of the cellar (Features 116, 117, 120, and 121) may be associated with the addition’s superstructure. The only evidence for the addition spanning the entire length of the quarter is a small posthole (Feature 109). If this feature is not associated with the quarter, the addition was probably no larger than the cellar.
The quarter was likely built on ground-laid sills or simple piers as no structural postholes were found associated with the building. Significant concentrations of window glass were identified surrounding the building, suggesting the quarter had glazed windows. While large concentrations of brick were found throughout the plowzone, this is likely waste from the production of bricks and the destruction of more substantial buildings, such as the kitchen to the south, that were situated near the quarter. However, some of the wasters or unused brick may have been incorporated into hearths, lining for subfloor pits, or other various features around the quarter.
The fill of both the subfloor pit (Feature 8) as well as the cellar (Feature 88) contained a mix of architectural debris, domestic trash, and personal items. Both may contain occupational layers suggesting that the pits were abandoned and filled before the structure was dismantled or moved. In contrast to the subfloor pit, the multiple lenses of fill within the cellar, including quantities of brick, crushed burnt shell and mortar, plaster, and window glass, appear to be related to the renovation or destruction of another building. It is unclear whether the quarter was still standing when the cellar was filled or if it had already been destroyed or moved. The domestic artifacts found within this mixed fill could have been generated by another nearby quarter or may relate to the kitchen building located to the south.
There is significantly less evidence for the second quarter. A second subfloor pit (Feature 87) was found fifteen feet east of the first (Feature 8) and directly northeast of the cellar (Feature 88). It also lies beside a burnt subsoil concentration (Feature 78) interpreted as the east gable chimney for the earlier quarter. While there is a burnt subsoil concentration (Feature 82) to the north, there is no corresponding evidence of a hearth to the south, although the large burnt area (Features 89 and 129) occupies much of this space. Again, there are no structural features associated with the second quarter. The quantity of artifacts found in the feature’s fill and apparent mid-eighteenth-century date for their use suggests this subfloor pit and associated quarter post-date the quarter to the west. Also, the placement of the possible hearth to the north suggests the second quarter was set perpendicular to the first quarter, facing east and west. The quarter measures approximately 16-by-27.5 feet, and was also built on ground-laid sills or simple piers with at least one end chimney. The building may have had glazed windows, but there is no discernable concentration within the plowzone that isolates this structure from its western companion.
The second quarter was likely torn down and its subfloor pit filled during the 1740s or 1750s. There is no evidence of fire, although significantly more material was found in this subfloor pit than in Feature 8. The change in orientation displayed by the second quarter may relate to a shift in landscape design that included building an addition to the manor house and expanding the enclosed gardens. These actions may have occurred during Nathaniel Burwell’s tenure from 1707 to 1720, but could also reflect changes implemented when Lewis I/II assumed the property and started a family in the early 1730s, or possibly by his son, Lewis II/II, after 1751 (see Fairfield History).
A third building was found at the conclusion of the 2005 field season. Two large postholes with clear postmolds were found seven feet apart in the southwestern corner of the excavation area. They most likely represent a substantial post-in-ground building that was apparently oriented north-south, facing the west side of the manor house. Evidence of ashy soils, similar to those found in the subfloor pit and cellar of the first quarter, was seen in the fill of nearby plowscars, suggesting the structure may have subfloor pits as well. Large amounts of charcoal in the postmold of Feature 112 suggest that this structure was destroyed by fire. A white salt-glazed mug fragment found in the posthole fill dates the building to after 1720. Its function is unknown, but it may have been a slave quarter related to, or replacing the earlier quarters, or it may be a kitchen or other ancillary building that served the main house and the Burwell family.
A fourth building may exist north of this post-in-ground structure. Three brick-filled holes (Features 10, 55, and 77) in the northwestern portion of the excavation area, one with a possible postmold (Feature 10) and two with repairs (Features 9 and 56), appear to be aligned with the southern structure. Similar features were not found to the west of this line, but their relatively shallow profile may have led to their destruction by deeper plowing in this area of the site. One of the brick-filled holes (Feature 9) cuts through the original subfloor pit (Feature 8), suggesting a later date for this possible structure, as well as for the structure to the south that is its likely contemporary. No diagnostic artifacts were found within the sampled portions of these features.
Lastly, the plowzone in the western third of the excavated area is dominated by the remains of a kitchen midden. Artifact concentrations increase dramatically within fifteen feet of the western edge of the excavated area. Shovel testing to the west and south indicate that the midden extends at least two hundred feet in both directions. Datable artifacts that coincide with this concentration suggest that the midden was deposited from the mid-eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries. Distinct differences are noticeable between these concentrations and those related to earlier occupations.
The above discussion of the slave quarters suggests that two different structures covered the complex of subfloor pits, cellar, and burnt subsoil areas. However, other explanations are possible. Based on the differences in artifact types and chronology, it appears that Feature 8 was filled first, while Features 87 and 88 were filled somewhat later. The relative chronological constraints on these pits seems to be the kiln-related burnt subsoil (Features 89 and 129), the two north-south oriented buildings along the west side of the excavation area (post-1720), and the massive kitchen midden which appears to begin during the mid-eighteenth century. Based on the relationships between these features, it can be suggested that the subfloor pits and cellar were filled between 1700 and the 1750s. As suggested above, the cellar and subfloor pits may indicate two successive structures, sharing construction techniques, but oriented perpendicular to each other. It is also possible that all three features were located within one multi-room, amorphous structure, measuring as much as 27.5 feet along each side. This hypothesis would be problematic in terms of chimney locations, but it must be considered.
Excavation of the Fairfield Quarter has revealed a complex series of buildings and activities highlighting the frequent changes taking place within the core of the plantation during the eighteenth century. The artifacts recovered from the two subfloor pits and the large cellar is likely a combination of materials from the quarters, both architectural and domestic, as well as materials from other nearby structures and activities. Included within Feature 87 were items related to gardening, including a pitchfork and part of a watering can. It can be assumed that slaves completed the majority of gardening tasks on the plantations, but it is unclear whether these tools were used primarily for tending the Burwell garden and various crops or if slaves used these in personal gardens located adjacent to the quarters. Throughout the plowzone were found various lead forms, including discs of various sizes, sprue, and folded spoons, suggesting the possible recycling and manufacture of lead items by the quarter’s occupants.
Perhaps most fascinating is the difference in fill types between the subfloor pits and cellar. The smallest and apparently earliest (Feature 8) includes a high proportion of personal and decorative items, such as buttons, glass beads, cowrie shells, and possibly symbolic items such as a raccoon bacculum. It also contained a high number of small artifacts, such as tiny colonoware, porcelain, and coarse earthenware sherds as well as animal and fish bone fragments, food types that may have supplemented the diet of Fairfield’s early slave community. The small cellar attached to the first quarter (Feature 88), in contrast, contained a diverse mix of layers of sterile sand, hard-packed clay, architectural debris, and artifact-filled loam. Within the fill was found large sections of plaster, ceramic tiles (likely from the manor house), brick, mortar and crushed burnt shell, and window glass suggesting renovation or demolition of a nearby building. There were also large complete cuts of meat and a small dog skeleton. Lastly, the subfloor pit from the second quarter (Feature 87) contained items similar to the first, but in larger amounts. A near-complete Fulham stoneware storage jar, at least five wine bottles, the aforementioned pitchfork and watering can, and fragments of tin-glazed apothecary jars and finely painted Chinese porcelain plates suggest this pit was filled from a domestic source, such as a quarter or kitchen.