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Tudor Place Honored for Archaeological Digs

By Deirdre BannonCurrent Staff Writer

A new report details the findings of a 2011 excavation at the Tudor Place Historic House and Garden in Georgetown: hundreds of treasures, including prehistoric stone chards, a cache of architectural artifacts, and evidence of a post hole that could indicate the former presence of a 19th-century gate or structure.

Those finds — and the effort to unearth them — helped earn the estate an award from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office last week.

On Thursday, the agency gave Tudor Place and Dovetail Cultural Resources Group — the firm that conducted the archaeological study there — its Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation, in the archaeology division, at the office’s ninth annual preservation awards ceremony.

In honoring Tudor Place, state historic preservation officer David Maloney said the facility’s staff members went “above and beyond” with their archaeological endeavors, calling their efforts an example of “responsible stewardship.”

The 2011 dig was the second of two recent archaeological projects at Tudor Place, both conducted by the Frederick, Md.-based Dovetail.

The first, which took place in November 2010, surveyed the 5.5-acre property and found clues of early building structures and 19th-century slave life at the estate, including artifacts like ceramics, buttons, pins and pipes.

The second study, conducted in October 2011, took advantage of a small window of opportunity to excavate under the property’s historic box knot garden while the plants were removed for a restoration project.

“We were honored and excited to receive the award,” said Leslie Buhler, executive director of Tudor Place. “Every archaeological study we do gives us a greater understanding of the earliest years of the estate — how it grew and how the town of Georgetown grew around it.”

The Historic Preservation Office doesn’t often give awards for archaeology, with the last one going to the Smithsonian Institution in 2009 for a project called “Lost in Time: The Boy in the Iron Coffin,” which uncovered mid-19th-century remains in Columbia Heights.

At Tudor Place, results from the 2010 archaeological study indicated that there was a high probability of finding artifacts under the box knot garden.

“We knew that the back part of the property was very active,” said archaeologist Kerri Barile, president of Dovetail. “There would have been [slaves’] living quarters back there, as well as barns for animals.”

Barile noted that the archaeological dig yielded details about how the grounds at Tudor Place were used, and how that use changed over time. The gardens, which were formal when the mansion was first built, became more utilitarian during the Civil War era, when the grounds served as a “bustling work yard,” before being converted back to formal gardens in the 1930s.

Unlike today, in the 1800s, backyards were often used for trash, which can illustrate how people lived.

“We often think of that time as being formal and austere, but it didn’t look like that at all,” said Barile. “Our idea of landscape and cleanliness are modern interpretations from the 1920s and ’30s — back then people would often open the back door and throw trash out, or dig a hole for it and later cover it with dirt.”

“While the Peters had a more formal garden on the south side of the house, the north side had all the sights and smells of everyday life,” she added.

One of the big discoveries under the box knot garden was a large debris pile containing bricks, glass and other architectural artifacts from either a construction or demolition project on the estate. It was an unexpected find that included handmade, glazed decorative bricks that match those used on the main house.

“Tudor Place is so well known for the Peters’ mansion, but very little is known about the time prior to the house being built,” said Barile. “We found direct evidence of the building process and the people who made the building, and that data can really add to our knowledge of life in 18th-century Georgetown.”

Also unearthed at the box knot garden site were 16 prehistoric artifacts consisting of angular debris and flakes, including what could be shards from stone toolmaking.

Erin Kuykendall, curator at Tudor Place, said the ability to conduct an archaeological dig at all is rare.

“Most of the city has been developed, but here we have an urban estate that survived through the 20th century — it stayed in one family, and remained relatively unaltered,” she said.

Kuykendall noted that while there are many records about Thomas and Martha Custis Peter and their family, much of life on the estate isn’t found in documents.

“Archaeology is sometimes the only way to learn about how a wealthy family was able to live,” said Kuykendall. “Their lifestyle hinged on a labor system that included enslaved and later free workers … . By doing archaeological excavations we’re able to talk about a group of people who aren’t represented in documented records.”

Tudor Place’s effort to uncover its history through archaeological studies is unusual as well.

“At historic sites, there is often an important emphasis on the buildings, but archaeological studies help the rest of the story come out, about people who don’t have a voice in the main house,” Barile said. “For Tudor Place to have acknowledged this and taken the steps to explore the archaeological remains is really notable.”

This article appears in the June 27 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.