Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mount Vernon Midden

According to the Oxford English Dictionary(OED), a midden refers to a dung-heap, refuse pile, or a domestic ash-pit. The origins of the word come from Scandinavian roots, appearing in print beginning in the 14th century. The OED’s definition for midden in an archaeological context characterizes it as a “refuse heap which marks an ancient settlement, consisting chiefly of shells and bones and often also discarded artefacts.” Danish scholars first used the term to describe archaeological remains found in the mid-19th century in association with shell heaps from antiquity.

The midden’s location, behind the kitchen on a gentle declivity which extends to the Potomac River, provides the reason why.  Deposits of household trash were often placed in depressions (natural or man-made, such as privies and disused wells or cellars), which overtime, could help to level out uneven ground.  The surface below the feature suggests a natural depression, perhaps where a large tree had fallen down.  It seems there was some conscious effort to fill in this depression with refuse.  The majority of the trash accumulated from c. 1735 – 1775, when the yard surrounding the midden was turned into the South Grove, a formalized area planted with flowering shrubs and small trees.

A view of the south grove midden area at Mount Vernon.

Copper alloy bell. Drawer pull. Furniture plate. Copper alloy hinge. Copper alloy hook. Copper alloy and iron hook. Iron skeleton key. Trunk plate engraved, "Gen: Washington." Iron turn key. Small copper alloy tack. Large copper alloy tack.

A Rhenish stoneware jug from the early 1700s. Although Rhenish stoneware was made on the continent of Europe-in either present day Germany or the Flanders region-at the end of the 1600s almost the entire range of exported stoneware began to be decorated for the British trade. Often these jugs displayed an "AR" or "GR" medallion in honor of Queen Anne or King George I. This particular piece features a manganese purple color, a technique introduced in the 1660s.

 Nottingham stoneware mug.  Base/ Can of Mug. Squat Nottingham mug.  Rusticated Nottingham stoneware mug. Nottingham stoneware zig-zag mug. Slip-dipped stoneware mug.  White salt-glazed stoneware mug. Large, rusticated white salt-glazed stoneware mug. Nottingham mug. Manganese mottled mug, base and partial handle. Manganese mottled mug. Maganese mottled mug, base only. William Roger's stoneware mug made in Yorktown, VA.

This flat disc, tombac button was manufactured by casting the molten metal into a mold. Tombac is a copper alloy with additives of zinc and occasionally arsenic that often ensure high levels of preservation in the archaeological record. Decorations like this eight-point star were commonly engraved on the surface of tombac buttons. The diameter of this button suggests that it may have once served as a closure for a man’s waistcoat. In general, eighteenth-century buttons are most often associated with men’s clothing, appearing on outer wear such as coasts and cloaks, but also on waistcoats, breeches, stocks (or neckcloths), sleeves, and handkerchiefs. Women’s clothes were fastened using laces, hooks and eyes, buckles, and straight pins.

A few 18th century wine bottle necks found in the Midden. While these particular bottles might have held a variety of alcoholic beverages, it is likely that they contained the general's favorite drink: Madeira. During his residency at Mount Vernon, George Washington ordered hundreds of gallons of Madeira and often entertained guests on the piazza, glass in hand. His love for wine inspired several vineyard attempts on the estate using grapes from Portugal and Spain as well as native plants. Unfortunately, his attempts ultimately failed and, in fact, it would be close to two centuries before Virginia's vineyards would prove successful.

Denier gauge. Thimble. Thimble. Lead bale seal. Straight Pins  Straight Pins. Metallic thread. Two-holed bone button. Tombac button. Two-holed shell button, small.

This object is the bulbous body of a stoneware jug made in the Westerwald region of Germany and transported to the colonies via England. It features a medallion molded with the initials “GR” for the English monarch King George (latin name, Georgius Rex). The succession of monarchs named George beginning in 1714 through the early nineteenth century makes the assignment of this “GR” jug to a specific king (and therefore dating) impossible. Hail to the king!

This complete, miniature pewter bowl might have once served imaginary tea, punch, or soup to a doll, or even George Washington during a "party" hosted perhaps by Martha Washington’s children or grandchildren. Children in the colonial period often entertained themselves with toys that were simply miniature versions of adult objects, including guns, whistles, and dishes. Like children today who have play-kitchens and host tea parties, the miniature pewter bowl would have been a welcome addition to any child’s toy collection. Pewter toys could be purchase in a variety of shapes and forms, and this bowl was probably one of many dinnerware miniatures.

Copy and photos from the Alexandria Archaeology Museum Facebook and the Mount Vernon's Mystery Midden Blog.

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