Preliminary Results of the 2011 AAS Summer Training Program at Historic Washington, Arkansas

In other contexts I have said that historical archeology is often about what is no longer there—at least what is no longer visible on the surface of things. This is very much the case with our work this summer in historic Washington, Arkansas. The majority of the past work at Washington has been associated with domestic yards (e.g., Sanders House and the Abraham Block House) or public space (e.g., the 1836 Courthouse) next to standing structures. Little work has focused on vacant lots or the commercial spaces that made Washington the important regional service center it was in the early nineteenth century. We changed all of that this summer when the 2011 Arkansas Archeological Society’s Summer Training Program conducted excavations on Block 6. This area is currently a vacant lot (and has been for most of the twentieth century), but from the 1830s through the 1880s it was the heart of the town’s mercantile district.

From my perspective (as Dig Director) the Summer Training Program (AKA “The Society Dig”) was a success this year. We learned a great deal in all three (or four depending on how you count them) excavation areas. We recovered tens of thousands of artifacts—mostly from the mid- to late nineteenth century. Additionally, many of these artifacts pointed directly to merchant activity on the block: rolls of sheet copper to be cut and sold, a variety of types of scale weights, and, of course, coins to be used in these economic transactions.

We discovered that the large square anomaly in the remote sensing data looks to be a merchant warehouse in operation from the 1830s until the 1870s (Area A). We learned that there are intact foundations of 1830s brick merchant store fronts along Franklin Street—the old Southwest Trail (Area C). We discovered a 1850s cistern that served a building we did not even know was there (Area A prime), and we discovered a small cellar to a building with fill dating from the 1830s up through the 1930s in Area B. We had over 100 volunteers and staff out on the dig. Despite the hot, dry conditions, I think we had a good time and made some good discoveries. Below, I will briefly outline what we have learned so far about each excavation area.

Area A: Possible Merchant Warehouse 1830s-1870s

 Following Dr. Lockhart’s remote sensing survey in March, we had one very large and clear target for excavation—a 20 meter by 20 meter square anomaly that was discernible in multiple technologies. This target seemed to be either a big building or a fenced in area such as a wagon yard. Naturally, we had many questions about this anomaly—what does it date to? Was it commercial or domestic? Was it a warehouse? A hotel? A very affluent home? By the end of the summer, both historical documents and our excavations helped us formulate a hypothesis.

The overall remote sensing maps of Block 6 showing the results of 5 technologies (the last 2 are GPR). Notice the large square structure (showing with the arrow) that shows up in the resistance and GPR data, image courtesy of Dr. Jami Lockhart.

In total, we excavated over twenty-one 2m by 2m test units into Area A. Five of these were excavated during the Arkansas Archeology MonthSpring Break Dig” and the remainder during the Society Dig in the month of June. Our “Spring Break Dig” recovered cultural material dating to the 1830s-1870s. We also discovered that many of the strongest anomalies in this area were due to a hard, brick-red soil found near the surface in many, but not all, of our excavation units. I first thought this might be construction fill that had been used to level the lot. I hypothesized that the square-shape of the large remote sensing anomaly was due to the fact that this soil filled in the depressions of old building foundations. However, our summer excavations disproved this hypothesis and instead revealed that the red, hardened soil is the product of intense in situ burning—with the strongest burning occurring along the eastern wall of the large square anomaly. This looks to be direct evidence of the late nineteen century fires that devastated Block 6 and brought an end to the old Washington commercial district.

Even more unexpected is the fact that our excavations encountered neither continuous foundations (as might be suggested by the geophysics) nor the occasional brick piers (as we have encountered during other excavations in Washington). Instead we unearthed a 25cm wide wall trench underneath the burned zone complete with a series of posts (some of which showed evidence of burning themselves). As post-in-ground construction is not incredibly common in Washington, we briefly considered that this might be a fenced area (such as a wagon yard) after all. However, the discovery of relatively large concentrations of bricks (enough for a chimney fall), a concentration of flat glass along the eastern wall of the anomaly (indicating that the structure had windows), and, finally, the discovery of a large (over 50 m wide and 175cm deep) central support post all pointed toward a large, barn-like structure.

Combining what we know from our excavations with what limited historical documents we have, I currently suspect that our square anomaly could possibly be the “large white frame” structure built by merchant Matthew Gray by 1833 (mentioned in the deed records), but it is more likely the “warehouse” behind the storefront on Block 6, lot2 operated by David and Virginius Block by the 1860s. Although. Of course, these two buildings may be one in the same. In the interim, I can say that the artifacts recovered from the Area A excavations are consistent with a 1830s to 1880s building used as a merchant warehouse and a 1830s warehouse might, indeed, look very much like a barn. Further analysis and excavations may give us more clues.

Area A’: 1850s cistern filled in during the late 1920s

 A rather concentrated, circular anomaly on the western edge of Block 6 closely aligned with the north wall of the large, square Area A structure could be discerned in several remote sensing technologies. This anomaly was also readily visible on the ground due to a dramatic vegetation difference. Given its size and position, I initially suspected that it might be a well, or similar feature, serving the Area A structure. My interest was further peaked when I realized that it did not show up on the 1926 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Block 6. As this map, the only extant historic map of Block 6, had been drafted for the purpose of fire insurance it would have most definitely noted the presence and usefulness of any water source on the block. The map shows the outline of a 1920s boardinghouse on lot 3 with a back ell extending toward the anomaly, but nothing in the actual location of the geophysical signature. If this anomaly was a well or cistern it would have had to have been filled prior to the drafting of the 1926 map. As I theorized that this possible well might have served the Area A structure, I elected to not consider this a separate excavation area, but to treat it as an “annex” to excavation Area A—calling it Area A “prime” (notated as Area A’).

Six 2m by 2m test units were excavated in Area A’ during the June Society Dig and the brick-lined rim of Feature 1 was encountered within the first 10cm level in Test Units 16 and 17. Feature 1 turned out to be a moderate-sized, brick-lined, bell-shaped cistern—complete with a charcoal-filled filter box. Although the top of the cistern had been sheared off (and bricks scattered along the surface of the opening), the cistern was, for the most part, intact and in excellent condition. A wide builder’s trench could be easily discerned around the exterior of the brick structure and the cistern had been backfilled with dark, organic midden probably scrapped from the surrounding block.

Interestingly, while expanding our excavations to uncover the cistern’s filter box, we discovered unforeseen foundations and rubble-filled trenches that could be contemporary—or even predate—our cistern. These foundations, along with the position of the filter box, have led me to conclude that the Feature 1 cistern did not serve the large Area A warehouse structure as I originally speculated. It most likely served a building on Block 6, lot 4 that did not show up on the remote sensing survey. Artifacts recovered from the rubble-filled trenches indicate that the building (and thus the cistern) dates to the 1850s, and excavation units on the back side of lot 4 suggest that it might be domestic, not commercial, in nature. This would mean that the cistern and associated buildings were built about the same time that Augustus Crouch—Washington jeweler and watchmaker—married his wife and purchased the property on lot 4. Although Crouch builds a Greek revival home on a farm just outside of town almost a decade later (which has since been moved into Washington and restored), this is possibly the site of a previous Crouch home. Again, this is a preliminary speculation and requires further investigation to be evaluated.

1850s cistern and associated features uncovered during the Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program in Historic Washington, Arkansas. AAS-SAU-DI-2011-5108.

Over the course of the Society Dig, we were able to excavate about half of the cistern down to a depth of 140 cm below the surface—as far as we were able to go safely without shoring up the excavation trench. The artifacts recovered from the fill ranged from the 1830s through the late 1920s; indicating that the cistern had been filled shortly before the 1926 Sanborn map had been made. This, along with the material from the previously mentioned builder’s trenches, gives Feature 1 a use-life beginning sometime in the 1850s and ending in the latter half of the 1920s. Whatever its fill date, Feature 1 was certainly popular with Society members and with visitors alike. Although many people voiced their desire to see the cistern excavation left open for visors, the sandy, erosion prone soil of Washington makes this both destructive (from and archeological point of view) and dangerous (from any point of view). Therefore, at the end of the end of the field season, the cistern was carefully backfilled until we can return to open up a wider excavation trench that can be properly stepped or supported by scaffolding. There could be as much as 7-9 more feet of fill in the cistern, so we have much more to discover.

Area B: Possible cellar with material dating from the 1830s-1920s

 Dr. Lockhart’s geophysical data also indicated two small roughly square anomalies in north central portion of Block 6. These anomalies had the potential to be a small dwelling and a secondary outbuilding (perhaps a privy). During the 2011 Society Dig we placed four 2m by 2m text excavation units over the larger of these two anomalies. This was the area that our basic excavation class worked in during the first and second session of the dig. Although we did not get to the bottom of the deposits in this area, we can say that these units yielded a rich midden containing many artifacts dating widely from the 1830s through the 1930s. We can also say that the larger remote sensing anomaly in Area B appears to be a shallow trash pit or, more probably, root cellar. We were able to profile this feature in several units and estimate its diameter, but there is still a lot of work to do in Area B in order to understand the nature of these features.

Area C: Merchant Storefronts 1830s-1880s

 The biggest surprise of the 2011 field season was the excavations in Area C. Although Dr. Lockhart’s remote sensing data revealed anomalies that looked to be the footprints of storefronts along Franklin Street, the fact that there appeared to be very little intact midden on the eastern portion of the block made me skeptical of fruitful deposits being encountered during the summer excavations. I estimated that we would place three 2m by 2 m units in the area, prove that the remains of the storefronts were ephemeral at best, and then we would close down Area C excavations in order to concentrate on Area A. I could not have been more wrong.

Relatively intact 1830s limestone foundations were encountered just centimeters below the surface in Test Unit 19 and a substantial brick scatter was encountered around these foundations and spilling into Test Unit 18.

In total six 2m by 2m test units were excavated in Area C. We can say after the summer excavations that the shape of the remote sensing anomaly seems to roughly equate to the area of the brick scatter.  As there is far more brick than can be explained by a chimney fall or brick pier foundation, this leads me to conclude that these storefronts were brick structures. The material recovered from within the brick scatter attests to both the commercial nature of the buildings and to an early date. Hand blown apothecary bottles (like the ones found at Old Davidsonville), lead bail seals for marking bundles of goods for inventory purposes, and, most spectacularly, money.

Aside for the large brick cistern itself, our most popular discoveries this summer were two coins that were both recovered from within the Area C brick scatter. The first of these, discovered by AAS member Steve Jacober, was an 1827 silver half dollar (Figure 7). This would have been a relatively common coin in early America as they have the third highest mintage of the entire series, exceeded only by 1834 and 1836. Nevertheless, it would have been a substantial amount of money when the merchant (or consumer) lost it in the mid-nineteenth century. This coin could buy the equivalent of about $10 worth of goods and services today.

The second of these coins was a 1780s Spanish colonial 1 Real coin recovered by new AAS member Vanessa Salas. This silver coin was heavily corroded and had been pierced at the head, but when it was freshly minted it would have shown a bust of Charles III of Spain on the obverse and pair of pillars separated by a crowned simple shield with lions, castles, pomegranate and the centralized three fleurs-de-Lis. This coin was probably struck in Mexico, Lima, Bogotá, Guatemala, Potosi, Santiago, Popayan, or Cuzco—all of which had colonial mints working between 1771 and 1825.

Of course, this coin was not dropped on the site during the 1780s—it had been in circulation more than 70 years before it entered the archeological record. The appearance of an eighteenth-century Spanish coin on a nineteenth-century American frontier site might surprise some readers, but it is not uncommon. The reason that Spanish Reales are often found at historic sites in the US is that, due to the scarcity of US minted currency and the very real silver content of Spanish and French coins, foreign currency was just as much in use in early America as was domestic coins. Coins like the Spanish 8 Reales (or “eight bits”) were legal currency in the US until 1857. Thus you often find cut fractions of larger silver coins (i.e., “pieces of eight”), or smaller 1 Real coins (“one bit,” roughly equivalent to an American dime) such as the one recovered from Area C, on American sites before the 1850s. In our context, the fact that Washington was a town bordering Mexico (before the Texas Revolution of 1836), underscores the connections to Latin America and the appropriateness of uncovering Spanish colonial currency on the site.

The Next Step: Plans for Next Year

I am pleased to report that in late August the Arkansas Archeological Society’s Executive Board approved returning to historic Washington for the 2012 Society Dig. The staff at the AAS-SAU Research Station and the members of the Kadohadacho Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society are busy making plans and getting ready for the return to Block 6. At this point we can give you some idea of what our goals might be for the 2012 Society Dig.

First, I would like to uncover as much of the storefront brick scatter in Area C as we can. Instead of excavating each unit to subsoil on its own (as we did this summer), I would like to uncover the entire shape of the brick scatter in as many units as we can.  After uncovering the dimensions of the feature itself, we then could “punch through” the scatter in all of the units recovering the material lodged within the brick rubble separately. Following that, we can investigate the possibility that these store fronts may have had below-grade cellars (a notion suggested in the last profile of the last unit that we completed last summer in Area C).

The second large task for the 2012 field season may be to further investigate the mysterious structure on Block 6, lot 4—the possible 1850s home owned by Augustus Crouch. We would need to gather basic information about this structure.  Does it, in fact, date to the 1850s? Is it domestic as initial units might suggest?  How long is it occupied?  Al these questions and more await our excavations.

I hope to see many of you there.


In any project as big as a Society Dig, there are many, many people to thank. I owe an enormous debt to my supervisors that made everything run smoothly in the field—Paul and Marylin Knapp, Larry Porter, Jessica Howe, Elizabeth Horton, John House, Bob Scott, Jared Pebworth, Gary Knudsen, May Beth Trubitt.  Thanks are due to Mary Ann Goodman and Mary Farmer who supervised the lab and Barbara Scott and David Jeane who saw to general logistics.  Thanks to ALL of the volunteers and staff who helped out in many ways both large and small during the dig.  Last, but far from least, I owe a great deal to those who have done work on/in Washington before me—Leslie C. “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy, Randall Guendling and Mary Kwas. Of these I owe a special gratitude to Skip, my “supernumerary” during the 2011 Society dig, who was there every day providing information, bouncing ideas around, and generally being a great help.

Volunteers and staff from the 2011 AAS Summer dig: clockwise from left: Jane Kolmer, Steve Jacober, Paul Knapp, Gary Knudsen, Don Higgins, Jamie Brandon Melissa Sorrells, Joe Parks, Marylin Knapp, Alan Smith, Keith Kolmer, Molly Brown, Jessica Howe, Van Schmutz, Emily Haydel, Adam Smith, Sedona Kolmer, and Charles Surber. Photo courtesy of Molly Brown.

You can find lots of other pictures from the 2011 Arkansas Archeological Society’s Summer Training Program at Historic Washington by following the link below:

**this post was submitted as an article to Field Notes: the Newsletter of the Arkansas Archeological Society 09/14/2011**

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