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Exploring the Boundary: Archeological Authenticity vs. Pragmatic Accuracy at Mount Vernon 

12-09-2015 17:35

With 15 surviving 18th-century buildings, Mount Vernon comprises an exceptional number of authentic structures dating from George and Martha Washington’s tenure at their Potomac River plantation in Virginia. Today almost a million visitors each year tour this historic house museum that presents and interprets the plantation as it was in 1799, the year of Washington’s death.

Since its establishment in 1853, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) has maintained the pretext that the plantation has changed little since Washington’s death. Yet, as with all historic properties, Mount Vernon was, and is, an ever evolving, fluid landscape. Today the Mount Vernon experience is such that visitors are not always aware of this evolution, or of changes to the plantation that shape the presentation of this site.

Given the remarkably complete condition of the authentic plantation, the mode of presentation chosen by the MVLA is full three-dimensional reconstruction of missing elements, and demolition of structures and features post-dating 1799. This method of interpretation creates a site that is easy to comprehend; yet the plantation’s story is more complex than can be understood from a single point in time. Likewise, while facilitating interpretation, reconstruction often destroys authentic fabric. Evidence derived from the archeological record, which is sometimes the best document of a property’s evolution as well as the authentic element of a site, is often subjected to compromises and simplified in the quest for an accessible historic site. And even with the best of evidence, reconstructions are never authentic.1

Changing Boundaries at the South Lane

One place that illustrates the complexity of the landscape and the choices made during restoration is the boundary between the south lane and the south grove. By the fourth quarter of the 18th century, Washington created the lane as a street housing many of the plantation’s utilitarian outbuildings. As he established this service space, he also transformed the yard next to the lane into a refined grove, planting “clever” or flowering trees south of his mansion. He fastened many of the plantings to a post-and-rail fence that ran south from the kitchen. This fence was probably constructed about 1775 when the kitchen was built. It bounded the eastern edge of the lane, separating the utilitarian from the refined. Period images suggest this fence was constructed of four planks between square posts and painted white. He used this type of fence to bound both the north lane and grove in addition to the south lane and grove, separating landscape elements without adding visual impediment.2

When the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the property, the ruins of a brick wall were visible along the lane. The above-ground remains of this wall were removed about 1860. The records suggest that the Association believed the wall was from Washington’s era, constructed presumably during the fourth quarter of the 18th century to replace the fence. In 1910 the MVLA secured funding and rebuilt the brick wall, using the ruins of the wall below grade as evidence and incorporating old bricks where possible into the new cement foundation.3

The Ladies believed they had accurately reconstructed the Washington-era boundary along the lane. Recent research suggests they reconstructed a first-quarter 19th-century fenceline. The property the Ladies purchased in 1858 was not as George Washington had left it. The three 19th-century Washington-family owners made numerous changes to both the house and plantation, especially Washington’s nephew and heir Bushrod Washington. It was probably Bushrod Washington who constructed the brick walls along the north and south lanes, adding a visual barrier to his uncle’s demarcation of space.

Since 1987 archeological investigations have unearthed enough evidence to convince the Association that the wall between the lane and grove was not the accurate 1799 boundary. Believing the fence was still present in 1799, the restoration department now feels confident that this feature can be restored to its 18th-century appearance. Begun in April of 2001 and due to be completed by November 2003, the project to dismantle the 1910 brick wall and reconstruct the post-and-rail fence will transform the plantation’s south lane and begin another chapter in the evolutionary process at this celebrated historic site. Archeological research is providing the necessary evidence to make a realistic reproduction. Yet as this project demonstrates, with the meticulous research generated by the archeological excavation, a number of compromises in the design and appearance of the replicated fenceline -- to facilitate the modern visitor’s convenience and safety, and to preserve the authentic remains of the fence -- will affect its accuracy.

Archeological Research at Mount Vernon

The MVLA has utilized archeological research as a facet of its permanent research program since 1987. The Association relies on a combination of archeology, documentary research, and structural inquiries to document, conserve, and restore the plantation, creating an experience for visitors as close as possible to the target interpretation of 1799.

Prior to 1987 archeological research was sporadic but has had a long history of providing evidence for physical reconstructions as well as a significant contribution toward understanding just how much the plantation has evolved. Since 1894, when a coach house on the south lane was reconstructed, and continuing through the 1951 reconstruction of the greenhouse/slave quarter, excavation was merely a tool to define the footprint of missing buildings or features. Speaking of the 1894 coach house reconstruction, Mount Vernon’s director Colonel H. H. Dodge reported, “Enough of the original brick foundation remained to indicate clearly the ground plan of the old building.”4

Today the archeology department is charged with carrying out research about the plantation and its inhabitants. It does not engage solely in providing evidence for reconstructions. Through careful and systematic excavation at specific sites, a greater understanding of the landscape is emerging. One of the benefits the MVLA is reaping from investing in this permanent program is this increased command of their property. Rather than rebuild solitary buildings or lone features, greater emphasis is now placed on comprehending, restoring, and interpreting whole portions of the plantation based on multiple lines of evidence.

The Restoration of the South Lane

The restoration of the fence along the south lane is part of one of these larger projects to rehabilitate the entire southern core of the historic area. Since 1987 six major excavations have occurred between the mansion and the fruit garden and nursery to the south. Excavation was designed to address the evidence and feasibility should a case for reconstruction be made in the future, but had at its core a desire for greater understanding of the plantation landscape, both pre- and post- 1799, as well as a mandate to explore the human interactions that created the sites.

As a result of these projects, a number of physical changes to the landscape have occurred. The fruit garden and nursery were replanted based on both archeological and historical evidence. The space is now a more accurate reflection of Washington’s passion for agricultural experimentation and his endeavor to nurture young plants. Likewise, the repository for dung was rebuilt in 2001. This hybrid structure for making fertilizer combines both masonry and post-in-ground construction and was an important part of the agricultural life of the 1799 plantation. It is the companion to the blacksmith shop -- a structure that was blocked from reconstruction by a former director who felt, despite documentary and archeological evidence, that a post structure for such a utilitarian craft would not be within site of Washington’s 1799 mansion. The reconstruction of the dung repository, along with the proposed reconstruction of the blacksmith shop, is a testimony to the evolving interpretation of Washington and his role as working farmer. At least one of the recent projects in the area, the exploration of the trash midden located in the south grove, is not conceived as being a candidate for reconstruction -- while visitors may ask about garbage disposal, there is no interest in recreating the landscape that accurately for the public.

The Search for Postholes

The excavation of the south lane boundary began unexpectedly in 1992. That summer a small excavation was opened inside the confines of the kitchen yard to assess the function of this space through time and to evaluate a well house, thought to be Victorian in nature. The archeologists discovered that during the 18th century the courtyard was dirt with just a small haphazard paving of bricks close to the well; they confirmed the Victorian nature of the extant structure; and they found four postholes (the holes dug to place a post into the ground). These features were partially covered over by the 1910 brick wall. The associated postmolds (the dark soil showing the placement of the original posts) were under the wall foundation.

With the knowledge that postholes and postmolds survived below the wall foundation, the wall and well house were removed in the spring of 2001. Excavations commenced to assess the archeological evidence for the fence line and any remnants of the pre-1860 wall and to better understand the evolution of this boundary through time.

The Evidence for the Reconstruction

Excavation did not uncover any evidence for the original 19th-century wall. It is thought construction of the wall in 1910 destroyed all evidence for this feature. The excavations, which ended in June 2003, did discover intricate details about the 18thcentury fenceline. Each posthole has a six-inch- square postmold. Since a postmold is the soil stain of the actual fence post, this provides the size of the wooden posts. The placement of the postmolds under the wall reveals that the boundary separating the utilitarian lane and kitchen yard from the refined pleasure grove has remained exactly the same for more than 200 years and for at least three generations of boundary features. The artifacts recovered confirmed the circa 1775 construction date of the fence, and nothing suggested the fence was dismantled prior to 1799.

The excavation discovered the fence did not begin flush with the kitchen, which was the terminus of the 1910 brick wall. Instead, the fence- line began at the southeast corner of the well. This left a narrow gap between the kitchen and the well, presumably for slaves to pass from utilitarian space to refined space surreptitiously. Likewise, the excavation did not find evidence for any other gates or openings in the fence. There was little need for movement between these two areas during Washington’s time.

The Compromises

The excavation revealed much more information than simply the presence of the fence. To accommodate the modern historic house visitor, as well as to preserve the remaining unexcavated features that represent the authentic remains of the fenceline, a number of changes are incorporated into the design of the reconstruction. The fence will start at the southeast corner of the kitchen, rather than at the well. Today we prefer visitors not walk between the well and the kitchen due to the narrow dimension. There will be an opening directly south of the kitchen door, a break in the boundary that has existed for almost 100 years. Unlike in the 18th century, today visitors are encouraged to walk between the east lawn with its magnificent view of the Potomac, the south grove, and the south lane where the outbuildings’ functions are interpreted. The fence’s southern terminus is also dictated by modern convenience. A break in the fence will maintain vehicle access to the lawn immediately before the repository for dung.

Finally, the spacing of the fenceline will be offset. The two short paths of fence behind the kitchen were completely excavated but the longest run of the fenceline, the section parallel with the lane, was not. By offsetting the posts slightly, fewer of the remaining authentic 18thcentury postholes and postmolds will be disturbed.


The reconstruction of the fenceline joins a number of recent projects along the south lane designed to make this space more accurate. The replanting of the fruit garden and nursery, rebuilding of the repository for dung, removal of a 19th-century well house, and addition of a pump over the well all provide the visitor with a visual impression similar to what George Washington experienced.

These reconstructions should not however be confused with making the space more authentic. With the exception of the repository for dung, which incorporates an authentic 1786 cobblestone floor and sections of masonry walls within the modern reconstruction, the other projects destroyed authentic features, from multiple time periods, to facilitate education and experience. In the attempt to interpret for almost a million annual visitors, Mount Vernon uses reconstruction to return the plantation to a single point in time. Thus, Mount Vernon sacrifices authenticity -- the remnants of postholes and postmolds -- for accuracy -- a reconstructed fence.

By its very nature archeological excavation destroys, albeit after meticulous note taking, authentic soils and features. To visually interpret the authentic George Washington-era fenceline the soil stains representing the postholes and postmolds would be left visible, not excavated or buried. But no matter how intriguing soil stains are to the trained professional, they are incomprehensible to the average historic site visitor. Interpreting ruins or soil is as difficult as interpreting multiple time periods within one site.

Through a complete understanding of the landscape, a fence, even with modifications for the modern visitor, becomes part of the whole rather than an isolated feature. After reconstruction, this component is joined with dozens of other pieces and together a comprehensive snapshot of the past is achieved. The reconstruction of elements such as this fence, when so much of a site is authentic, is even viewed by some as a restoration rather than a reconstruction, since it restores missing elements.5

Given the educational and preservation mission of the MVLA, the site’s holistic approach to presenting the past creates a comprehensible, successful, and meaningful visitor experience. The role of archeology at historic sites such as Mount Vernon is to document the details, provide the evidence, and propose the most accurate representation possible. Through archeological research the site’s evolution is understood and the necessary decisions are well informed, intelligent choices that serve to provide the most accurate educational experience for the public.


1 Richard Sellers and Dwight Pitcaithley, “Reconstruction -- Expensive, Life-Size Toys?” CRM Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 4 (1979), pp. 10-11; Barry Mackintosh “The NPS Experience with Reconstruction,” Proceedings of the Canadian Parks Service Reconstruction Workshop (Ottawa, Canada: National Historic Sites Parks Service, 1993), pp. 34-35.

2 Jackson, Donald and Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, Volume IV: 1784- June 1786 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), pp. 101, 117. The fence on the north lane is visible in the painting A View of Mount Vernon from the North East, attributed to Edward Savage, c. 1792.

3 Regent’s Report and Superintendent’s Report; The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Annual Report, 1911, pp. 12, 35.

4 Minutes of Council, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (Mount Vernon, Va. 1894), p. 28. The reconstruction of the coach house is thought to be the first reconstruction based on archeological evidence in the eastern U.S.

5 Barry Mackintosh, “The NPS Experience with Reconstruction,” pp. 34-35.

Publication Date: Fall 2003


Author(s):Esther C. White

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