Dishes offer clues to lifestyle
March 14, 1996
by Pamela Cressey
Stepping back in time is tricky. Although archaeological excavations are the best time tunnels I know, we never exactly can see the past without our contemporary perspectives. What was every day life like for a Mount Vernon Mansion House Farm 200 hundred years ago? We will never know for sure, but archaeological excavations in the cellar of the two story brick "House for Families" provide tangible clues. Do they fit our stereotype images of slave life?
As I discussed last week, the cellar excavations yielded thousands of artifacts and dietary remains in more than 20 thin soil strata about 3 to 6 feet underground. The artifacts were probably discarded between 1760 and 1792/1793 when the house was demolished.
Are the slaves discarding artifacts which document their disenfranchised status? It is fascinating to look at the catalogue of ceramics which were excavated from the cellar. For the most part, the ceramics were used for eating, drinking, food storage and serving. Most of the 578 ceramic sherds had been imported from England and China. White saltglaze stonewares such as 13 plates, 4 bowls, 2 chamber pots, 3 cups, and 2 saucers were the most frequently discarded ceramics. The Mount Vernon archaeologists recovered creamware plates and 13 large Staffordshire slipware serving dishes with trailed, combed and marbled decoration.
Eleven percent of the ceramics were Chinese porcelain, including plates, cups and bowls. Also found was a black-glazed redware teapot and nine teacups made of various imported wares. Eleven mugs and a Nottingham brown stoneware loving cup also were discovered. Thirteen hand blown dark green wine bottles were unearthed, but only one pharmaceutical bottle. At least 6 wine glasses had some decoration, including stems with air and enamel twists. Pewter spoons and bone-handled table knives also were once used on the tables in the slave quarters.
The everyday items discarded by the Mansion House slaves are similar to objects used by many people during this latter part of the 18th century. Current thinking of archaeologists Dennis Pogue and Esther White is that the objects were recycled from the Mansion House, since they could well have been in an elite planter's home. These domestic and skilled slaves probably had a higher status than ones living on Washington's outlying farms in little cabins, although comparative artifacts have not yet been excavated. But even in this "miserable" cabins, were some amenities. A visitor in 1798 wrote: "Husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot."
Yet among all the European goods, the Mount Vernon archaeologists found ceramics which are clearly not from a European tradition. They may document black ingenuity, industry and creativity even within a slave status. More next week!
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
Photo Caption: Archaeological discoveries from the Mount Vernon slave quarters include a Staffordshire slipware plate, oyster and clam shells, wine glass stem, wine bottle, white salt-glazed tea cup, pewter spoon, and Chinese porcelain plate. Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.