Three weeks ago, working late into the afternoon with the threat of a late summer thunderstorm ready to break at any moment, the Colonial Williamsburg / College of William and Mary field school in Historical Archaeology wrapped up its third season of excavation at the suspected location of Williamsburg’s Bray School. This unique school, founded by the London-based philanthropy “The Associates of Dr. Bray”, offered religious education to Williamsburg’s African American boys and girls in the 1760s. As we wrote last month, the archaeological excavations follow recent documentary research carried out by Terry Meyers, Chancellor Professor of English at William & Mary, whose research indicates that between 1760 and 1765 the so-called Bray School was housed in a rented dwelling located at the south east corner of North Boundary and Prince George Streets. Meyers’ research further revealed that this corner lot was originally developed as early as the late 1710s, and that by the late eighteenth century it was in the possession of the Digges family, which received rent payments for the lease of a building that was used as a school.
As recently as 1930, a relatively modest eighteenth century house once owned by Digges family stood at the corner of the North Boundary and Prince George Streets. Although the building has since moved from its original location, we hoped archaeological evidence of its construction might still survive somewhere on the grounds of Brown Hall – the William & Mary dormitory currently occupying that corner. If we could determine that construction of the Digges House pre-dated 1760, it may well have been the original Bray School.
For 10-weeks each of the last three summers, field school students spent their days systematically documenting archaeological evidence of the lot’s long and complicated history of development and redevelopment. We spent the first two summers probing the garden area south of the dorm, and excavating an earthfast slave quarter and outbuilding that dated after the Bray School’s relocation to another part of town.
This summer we moved flush up against the Brown Hall’s south exterior wall. Previously we reasoned that Brown Hall’s (1930) construction would have destroyed any evidence of the lot’s earlier occupations for a wide area around the building. To our great surprise, however, the impact of construction was limited to the footprint of the three-story brick structure, leaving surviving archaeological features and artifacts well preserved in their original context only inches away from the dorm. As a result, most of this summer was focused on excavating a very large trench —almost the full length of Brown Hall — in the hope that a remnant of the Digges House’s original footing might still survive peaking out from the dorm’s foundation.
Unfortunately, evidence of Digges House proved elusive yet again, although we did identify the brick footings of two outbuildings that stood in the yard behind this dwelling. The larger of the two was a detached kitchen; the smaller one was most likely a dairy or smokehouse. Both buildings were built on top of earlier postholes, indicating an earlier structure. The postholes, however, extended beyond the boundaries of our excavations so we were unable to determine if the postholes were for fence posts or if they supported vertical timbers for a wood frame building. In the case of the kitchen building, at least one posthole was dug through the brick foundation further indicating that at some point the kitchen was demolished and wooden posts for a fence or building was erected directly overtop of the abandoned foundations. The overlapping of postholes and brick foundations and postholes again indicates the rear portion of the lot was redeveloped at least three times during the eighteenth century.
In between the two outbuilding foundations, we also excavated a deep pit feature cut into the natural clay subsoil that was possibly used for storage. Although rectangular, the pit had a round barrel lining with the area between the barrel and the edge of the pit backfilled with yellow clay. While the barrel lining was no longer intact, its impression in the surrounding yellow clay was unmistakable. Upon abandonment, the pit was filled primarily with fireplace ash and household refuse including: ceramics, wine bottle glass, and lots of animal bone and oyster shell. The ceramics discarded into the feature suggest that it was abandoned about the middle of the eighteenth century.
Over the three years of fieldwork, tens of thousands of pottery and bottle glass fragments, animal bone, oyster shell, and small finds such as clay marbles and doll parts have been recovered, representing all phases of the site’s long history. Perhaps most notable among these artifacts are a handful of slate pencil fragments used for writing on slate boards. Roughly three dozen were found during our first two summers, and an additional dozen were recovered this year. Although not uncommon on eighteenth century sites in Williamsburg, more pencil fragments have been found on this site than any other in town. The pencils offer a powerful insight into the Bray School’s curriculum, and suggest that writing was part of the school’s instruction at a time when writing among enslaved African Americans was rare, if not actively discouraged by the majority of slave owners.
This summer also provided the opportunity to revisit one of the most exciting and unexpected finds from the first summer of fieldwork. In 2012 we exposed and partially excavated a brick-lined well located at the front (north end) of the lot, along Prince George Street. The well’s relatively public location suggests that it may have been a communal water source, as well as a gathering spot for the community. Excavations this summer provided a late eighteenth-century date for the well’s use. The late date suggests that the well may not have been used by the Bray students, but nonetheless, the feature represents an important component of Prince George Street’s landscape in the decades following the American Revolution.
While the Digges House footings remained elusive, three summers of excavation at the Bray School site have proven to be very productive. With the recovery of pencil fragments, most of our evidence for the school has been artifactual rather than architectural. We have also learned a great deal about the lot’s early development, as well as its redevelopment after the Revolution. As is so often the case with archaeology, we began the project with one question, but the results answered many others.
-Contributed by Mark Kostro, Staff Archaeologist.