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Researchers uncover evidence of Wren gardens

Sometimes perseverance pays off. This summer, archaeologists at the College found evidence of the 18th-century garden landscape that once graced the yard of the Wren Building. What they discovered fit into a nearly 80-year-old mystery, which started in 1929 with the discovery of the Bodleian plate, a copper plate that dates back to the 1740s and is believed to be a printing plate used for a report on the Virginia colony to the monarchy. Housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in England, it was found by researchers preparing for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.

The plate includes images of the Colonial capitol and Governor’s Palace in addition to buildings on the William and Mary campus. Its discovery offered the first glimpse at the buildings and surrounding grounds of the period. Researchers saw for the first time evidence of an elaborate formal garden on the east side of the Wren Building.

The images on the plate guided the extensive restoration of the Wren Building and Colonial Williamsburg undertaken by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1930s. At the time, verification of the existence of the garden was not pursued.

No one looked for the garden until last year when a team of archaeologists, part of a Colonial Williamsburg archaeological field school led by Steve Archer and Marley Brown, set out to find evidence of its plantings. While nothing definitive was found in that excavation, Archer, an adjunct instructor of anthropology at the College and a reasearch associate at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF), and Brown, a research professor of anthropology at the College and director of archaeological research at CWF, were not deterred.

The archaeologists knew the plate depicted a garden accurate to the period. In fact, Brown noted that the style of the formal garden shown on the plate is often referred to as a “Williamite garden.”

While there was some documentary evidence of what may have composed the grounds around the College’s original buildings, nothing was detailed enough to determine whether the picture represented by the plate was accurate. No other evidence of the landscape was known to exist.

This summer’s excavation may have changed that. Buried in the earth were signs of planting holes and of pathways made with clay, sand, limestone and crushed seashells that archaeologists believe date back to the 18th century.

The team uncovered three planting holes, each 18 feet apart on center. The number and spacing of these features is of particular importance, Archer said. “In archaeology, one is an anomaly, two are a hint and three are a pattern,” he added. “When we find three [planting holes] with the exact same spacing, that’s not our imagination.” The layout of the holes also coincides with the layout depicted on the plate. “It’s very exciting,” added Archer. “There is so much damage on this yard. It’s very patchy; we are so lucky we found it.”

The Wren Building was destroyed by fire in 1705, 1859 and 1862—events that have been well documented. The soil striations uncovered this summer clearly showed two of these fire events, helping the archaeologists date their discoveries. “[This discovery] is a testimony to modern garden archaeology,” said Brown.

Professors and students alike were excited by their finds. “It’s nice,” said graduate student Dessa Lightfoot about finding the planting holes. “It’s rare that you find what you are actually looking for.”

The team also found two outlying planting holes, which were aligned with each other and were equidistant as well but are believed to date from a later period. “[With the outlying planting holes] we think we have pretty clear evidence that they changed the layout of the garden sometime in the late 19th century,” Archer said.

Undergraduate and graduate students worked tirelessly to uncover the landscape features. Soil had to be removed gradually and gently, often with the light stroke of a trowel and sometimes with nothing more abrasive than a brush. The digging is slow, deliberate and back-breaking work, especially in the heat and humidity of a Williamsburg summer.

“You get used to the heat,” Lightfoot said. “When you’re working on something worthwhile, you are willing to put up with some physical discomfort.”

Brown noted the discovery will likely be worthwhile for not only authenticating the Bodleian plate but added that the finds should help to show the important role the College’s buildings played in 18th-century Williamsburg. “This is a very important discovery to show how Williamsburg was chosen to be the capital,” he said. “The Wren Building was the first key component in this array of public buildings that gave Middle Plantation the stature to move the capital here.”

As historic as the summer’s finds might be, the archaeologists have no plans to hang up their trowels. While discovery of the planting holes helped to answer some questions, other finds generated more. The team also found nearly a dozen cannonballs that date to about the mid-19th century; offhand the archaeologists could not completely explain their presence.

Archer noted that finding artifacts in the yard was no surprise due to its more than 300 years of continuous use. The challenge, he said, is figuring out which artifacts go with what time frame.

“There are going to be domestic and architectural artifacts in the Wren Yard,” continued Archer, “but this project is a matter of teasing out the artifacts that relate to the garden.”

While this summer’s excavation is complete, the research is not done. Students at William and Mary will continue evaluating the artifacts this fall in a directed-research class set up to analyze the summer’s finds in a more carefully focused way. The students’ projects can include analysis of documentary, archaeological or botanical materials, or all three, related to the establishment of the landscape features of the College or of the school’s founding.

“It’s nice the students get to pursue it a little bit more and look at the materials more analytically,” Archer said about the class.
Brown also noted the existence of the 18th-century Desandrouins Map (1782), which shows extensive gardens on the west side of the Wren Building. He would like to have the opportunity to dig there as well. “There’s more [to find],” he said.

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