What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then….

Features of Interest as Archaeologists begin a new excavation south of the Armoury.

Features of Interest as Archaeologists began a new excavation south of the Armoury.

About 5 weeks ago, at the outset of our spring excavation, we posted the picture above.  It was intended to help readers  see what we saw…areas that piqued our interest as we resumed exploration of a large pit discovered in 2012.   The dotted lines indicate differences in soil color.  The question marks identify those things we did not yet know, but hoped to learn before the end of April.  Now, with the “Sawpit Excavation” behind us, it’s time for some preliminary reporting on what we’ve learned.    

The image below is our “after” picture, illustrating what was found beneath all of those question marks.  As you can see, we called the “shapes” pretty well.  The “large pit” turned out to be smaller than expected:  12’ x 16’ instead of 12’ x 20’ (probing is not always an accurate indicator of a pit’s extent!).  We know that it has a rectangular shape, although you may notice that we left ¼ of the fill for future archaeologists to explore with their improved technology and different questions.    The pit measures about 3.5’ deep. 

Fully excavated features at the end of the project, 5 weeks later.  What is it? Read on...

Fully excavated features at the end of the project, 5 weeks later. What is it? Read on…

None of these characteristics is inconsistent with our original theory that this is a sawpit- a pit dug into the ground to enable pairs of sawyers (with a pit saw between them) to cut long plank.  Master Carpenter Garland Wood believes that 16’ is long enough to serve the purpose, and that the width of this pit would have accommodated at least 2 pairs of sawyers.  We hypothesize that, under pressure to the Armoury complex quickly, carpenters may have opted to prepare materials on-site.  

Recent excavation showing both pits in relation to the rest of the Armoury.yard.

Recent excavation showing both pits in relation to the rest of the Armoury.yard.

While this interpretation may still make sense, there are some unanswered archaeological questions.  If this is, indeed, a sawpit, where is the evidence for a framework?  At the very least we expected a trestle…represented in the ground by postholes… to support a platform above.  More significantly, where is evidence for a cover? We have learned through cruel experience that a single hard rain can spell collapse for a hole such as this, and yet the sides of the pit are straight and crisp indicating that they were never exposed to the elements.  Did later construction obliterate the posts we were looking for? Admittedly, our confidence in the sawpit interpretation waivered a bit during the course of this project. 

And then we found a second one. 

Just to the west of the first sawpit, the second pit looked (initially) to be a basin-shaped depression.  The upper layers produced large ceramic fragments, principally (and strangely) chamber pots, and below that,  quantities of brick rubble.  As excavation proceeded, the basin became a neat rectangular hole,  straight-sided, flat-bottomed, and with a drain cut through the center to channel rainwater. Unlike the first pit,  it exhibited the expected postholes—two on the east and two on the west—indicating that a trestle was supported over it.  While our 4 man sawpit might remain in question, there is no doubt that the small hole is a 2-man sawpit.  And (of course) there is guilt by association. 

A functioning sawpit.

A functioning sawpit.

At present we feel comfortable interpreting both of these features as sawpits, though there are still some details to work out.  We know that they were not there at the same time.  The smaller pit cuts into the larger one, making it more recent. The bottom layers of the larger pit are filled with trash from the Armoury: clinker, gunflints, and half-completed iron objects, suggesting that it had become a handy trash receptacle by the time the Armoury started to function.  That the smaller pit comes later is verified by the fact that there are very few “industrial” artifacts in it.  Instead, the fill consists mostly of household refuse.  It is possible that the brick rubble comprising its fill  represents the demolition of a house shown standing on the Frenchman’s Map (1782) just to the south.      

What else did we find? Although we are still a long way from having a clean and completed inventory of artifacts, we have formed some impressions of what was in the pit.  There were certainly lots of animal remains ….not just the butchered remains of Armoury meals, but the articulated skeletons of a cat, and what appear to be two ducks and three roosters.  Given that they were “whole”, it is unlikely that they were eaten.  Some readers remember that last year’s excavation produced 6 dog burials.  And so begins our next round of “question marks.” 

Here are some other artifacts that we stopped to photographed along the way…..

-Contributed by Meredith Poole, Staff Archaeologist.


  1. Diane Phillips says

    Thanks again for your valuable and invaluable information on the excavation sites. Question: What is the educational background of those who work here? History, Archeology ? In another life, what joy could be found touching and recreating the past.

    • Meredith Poole says

      Hi Diane~
      Great question. Most of our archaeologists have degrees and backgrounds in anthropology (archaeology being a sub-discipline of anthropology). But you’re absolutely correct, others do come in through the history door. We have a few of those too. There is, indeed, joy in touching and recreating the past (and a lot of sweat and patience as well!)

  2. Kerry says

    I see what you mean.It appears that there is a negative grade at the northwest corner of the tin shop. From what little I know there were few gutters on structures in the 18th. century. There are some on the ground in various places in CW. .It is a wonder that foundations during that period lasted very long. Today we have what is called french drains
    along with gutters carry away water from the structure. Can you imagine
    what Duke of Gloucester was like in the 1770’s during days of pouring rain. Horses,wagons animals and trade people trying to do business?
    I am sure the fine staff folks will address all this before grand opening.
    Thank goodness for Gortex shoes.

    • says

      Kerry, it looks like there’s a “tide line” on the side of the foundation – it must be a couple of feet up. I bet you had a whopper of a rainstorm yesterday. Good luck, but wasn’t that area originally a ravine of some sort?

      • Meredith Poole says

        You get a gold star for remembering the ravine. It’s always a bad idea to try to change topography! The drain just west of the tin shop often runs slowly, but I will tell you that no drain would easily have handled last night’s rain event. The figure I heard was 4.5″ in 90 minutes.

        I’m sure all will be well in just a bit, as the (already sodden) site absorbs the deluge. In the meantime, we can all appreciate the height and strength of the tin shop’s new foundation. Thank you, brick masons!.

  3. Ed Glaser says

    Wow, I’m watching the webcam on the side yard of the tinsmith’s shop, and it appears that the drainage there may be a real problem. Is that going to be a problem for the archaeological explorations down there?

  4. Christine Hansley says

    Hi Ken,
    This is a question about window shutters. I just read the “Today in the 1770s” May 22, 1775. It said there were major hail storms and the Palace lost over 400 panes of glass. Where the shutters for decoration (like today) rather than window protection? Or were the upper floor shutters difficult to close from the inside?

    Thanks for all of the info you send our way.

    Have a great and safe Memorial Day weekend,


  5. Kerry Lancaster says

    Can’t keep my eyes off the 53 regt. button you guys found. To touch an item that no other has touch since the 18th century must be rewarding. Can’t imagine the joy at Jamestown when Mr. Kelso and his crew found the original fort. I never get tired coming to both places. it is forever changing because of people like you and all who work there daily.My question is Have you found other buttons ,shoe buckles or other military items of metal at this site? My second question to Kenneth. Were Bayonets ever repaired in the Anderson Armoury? I know most British brought their own but don’t much about American weapons. Thank you

  6. Ken Heiser says

    Is it possible, that the small saw pit was put into service and active during the time the Armory was in operation for the purpose of producing dimensional lumber for material used to construct boxes for lead ball, musket crates, wagon parts, etc.? Such items would have consumed a significant amount of lumber, and would not require long lengths. I know this idea is speculative, but it seems logical that Anderson would have needed a predictable and steady supply of various sized boards and plank for the armory’s operation. The large pit may have been used for the buildings construction but became an unnecessary use of valuable yard space based on its proximity to the tin shop, workshop buildings, and the Armory yard, especially if you have 40 people working at several trades. This would mean the large pit was filled while the Armory was in operation, and the small pit was likely abandoned when operations ceased, and filled in over time after the armory moved to Richmond.
    Now to go farther out on a limb I would call your attention to the blog post of November 20, 2012. In it you refer to the many, many unmanned holes as being “numerous incarnations of a fence”. I am not exactly certain of the location of that line of holes in relation to the small sawpit but it appears to be between the workshop building and the saw pit. If so, could some of those post holes have been the result of outdoor planeing benches much like the ones the carpenters used to plane the moldings and siding for the “New Armoury” building? If that were the case, it would have been an efficient rough mill set-up for converting logs into workable material for wooden Armory products.
    I look forward to visiting soon and seeing all the progress in person!
    Ken Heiser

  7. Rick Brouse says

    So…anyone out there ever work a pit saw? I have. And believe me, the poor guy on the bottom (ESPECIALLY on a hot sweaty summer day) DIDN’T HAVE A GOOD TIME! And you always rotate top to bottom, so everyone gets a chance to have a shot at the messy end of the saw. It is also a bit tricky to keep good balance for the guy on the top. There are also accounts of fellas loosing their balance. And while trying to recover their balance, they got their toes too close to the blade as it goes down. OUCH! Yeah not good! All in all….not an easy job! FYI, steel tipped shoes are required when we do it. And I’ve got proof that there were folks that most likely lost “foot digits”!

  8. says

    I am completely overwhelmed! I haven’t had a chance to keep up with the armoury blog. I think the last I read a post was sometime in September! I am literally laying around the house as I recover from surgery, so I believe I will quickly catch up. So much has happened in 8 months.

    • Meredith Poole says

      Best wishes for a speedy recovery. We will try to keep you entertained…or at least informed….for the duration. You are right, there has been a lot of activity at the Armoury, and plenty more to come before November’s big opening! Hope you enjoy catching up!

  9. Christine Hansley says

    Hi Meredith,
    Thanks for the info on the tar paint from the other blog.
    Thanks for this update. What can I say, “Great minds…….” anyway.
    I can understand that maybe they buried a friendly cat when is died, but ducks and roosters?? Unless someone (the cook) felt they were diseased or something, and they buried them so they would not be eaten by humans.
    In the saw pits, did you find any evidence of saw dust? Or did they cart it away? Or use it for something? If so what?
    My questions are all your fault. You peek my interest and test my brain.
    Have a good weekend,

    • Meredith Poole says

      Hi Chris~
      Yes, the animals present a real puzzle…though we’ve found that Eleanor gives us a bit (a VERY little bit) more respect in light of these most recent findings.

      Saw dust was not immediately evident in the pit fill. That doesn’t mean it was not present, however. It is in cases like these that we depend on our sampling strategy. The small bags of soil we collect from within each layer allow us to check soil chemistry, as well as look for pollen and phytoliths….all of them invisible to the naked eye.

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