The Finding of… a Trash Pit?
This newsletter is dedicated to a rectangular-shaped area of approximately 8 feet wide, 10 feet long, and 13 feet deep. The image below shows the location of the area in question, 30 feet away from the Cloverfields house.
Until recently the inconspicuous rectangle was hidden under grass. In January of 2018, a ground penetrating radar detected an anomaly in that specific section of the lawn. Something had happened below the surface of that portion of the lawn, different from what was around it. Since then, the preservation specialists working at Cloverfields have tried to figure out the reason for the anomaly. Thanks to the archaeologists of Applied Archaeology and History Assoc., we finally have an answer.
The video above features Jason Tyler, RPA, Vice President and Principal Archaeologist of Applied Archaeology and History Assoc. He tells us about the journey of discovery.
Tyler starts from the beginning, when the anomaly was exposed:
This story goes back to right at the beginning of the project. It was January last year . Dr. Horsley came out and he did a geophysical survey, magnetometry, and ground penetrating radar. The ground penetrating radar, it found an anomaly, not far from the side of the house, the side door. And this went on for… It was actually quite deep. It looked to me to be 2 meters deep and it was roughly square. So, 2 meters, around 13 feet, somewhere around there in that. And it was square or rectangular. There was definitely something different out there.
The question was: what was that something different? One of the hypotheses originally managed was that it could have been an eighteenth-century dairy. This theory, Tyler explains, was based on tax returns:
And one of the clues we had was that on the 1798 Federal Tax Returns it talked about a dairy, which matched the approximate shape of this anomaly. Now the dairy is, as we know, it’s where you would store the milk, store the cheese, that kind of thing. And, we went, “well that’s interesting because the Direct Tax Return also doesn’t mention an ice house.”
In January of 2019, exactly one year after the existence of the rectangular anomaly was revealed, the archaeologist began digging the area. At first they thought they had found a trash pit. Jason tells us:
So, in January of this year, we got the order to go ahead and start our task, and see if we could find anything in this location. What was this anomaly? And what we found was complicated, and perplexing somewhat, because all we found was that there was some kind of evidence for some kind of pit here, that that pit had been more recently covered with soil. By recently I mean in the twentieth century. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the end of the nineteenth century, it had been used to store trash, to throw away your trash.
In that trash the archaeologists found some mementos of early twentieth-century life. Notable among them are three bottles: one for a vegetable compound, another one for a colic and cholera remedy, and a Bromo Seltzer one:
What we found was bottles like this. This is “Lydia Pinkum’s Vegetable Compound.” There are these various bottles. Here we got “Chamberlain’s Colic and Cholera Remedy,” and for those people who had been to Baltimore or Brooklyn, and saw the tower, this is a Bromo Seltzer bottle. So we have the inside of the pit; it’s filled with things like this. But obviously this is not our period of significance, and we thought, “have we stumbled just upon a big trash pit?” Because we have to remember, there was no municipal trash collection until the turn of the century. So we wanted to see: was this pit in the house? Was it of significance?
A Rare Wood-Lined Ice House
Starting at some point at the end of the nineteenth century or beginning of the twentieth century, the area in question functioned as a trash pit. But could there be anything under it? Tyler tells us:
So my team, led by Zack Andrews, painstakingly removed all of these deposits, and kind of got to the soil underneath, and what we found was that there was a pit, and it had a wood lining. So the wood lining… What happened was that the top parts of the wood lining had collapsed into the pit like this. So here’s the interior of the pit, and here it falls in like this, and the soil starts to cover this and goes in on top of that. So, we thought, “Oh, this probably ruined everything.”
Fortunately not everything was ruined. In fact, the layer under the trash pit ended up being something quite rare: a wood-lined ice house. Tyler reports:
But what we found was that as the wood lining collapsed, it protected all the deposits which were at the bottom of the pit before it collapsed. So, this was really helpful, and some of the wood, the wood floor was still preserved underneath, and the bottom half of the wood lining was preserved as well. But, was it an ice house? Because most ice houses, you see, most ice houses that survived, tend to be brick- lined, or they tend to be stone-lined. So, it’s pretty unusual to have a wooden-lined, one that has survived as long.
Wooden-lined ice houses were indeed rare. There’s three that we know of in Virginia, to be found at the Davenport House (Williamsburg), the High Hills House, and the Moore House (Yorktown) (Olmert 215, 219-220). Tyler provides us with another example:
A good example that we know of, of another famous person who had a wooden one, was George Washington. And he had two ice houses. The one that you see at Mount Vernon is the second ice house. The first ice house is believed to have failed. So he wrote in 1784 to his friend Robert Morris, asking for tips and construction advice on how to make a new ice house.
Tyler wrote a short note on the ice house, where he quotes Washington’s request: “The house I filled with ice does not answer—it is gone already—if you will do me the favor to cause a description of yours to be taken—the size—manner of building, & mode of management, & forwarded to me—I shall be much obliged.” Here Washington is participating in a well-established tradition. Historian Michael Olmert observes: “Complaining about defects in icehouse design and operation was a sort of patrician malady, like gout” (206).
In the video, Tyler goes on to say:
So we know that he [Washington] was using…; you know, he had trouble with this wood lining but apparently the hands here at Cloverfields, they had more success. So I think this can show us a lot about how ice houses were used, and maybe also it’s valuable in the fact that there aren’t many that survived like this. So we have some written records but not a lot of physical kind of remains. So I think this is another area where Cloverfields has a lot to offer in regards to understanding life in the eighteenth century, life in Queen Anne’s County in the eighteenth century. This is quite exciting. I say that about everything I find at Cloverfields because it is. There are some fantastic archaeological resources here for future research as well, so I really think that this really adds to the Cloverfields story, and adds to the value of Cloverfields, just on a research basis.
If wooden ice houses were rare, their survival is truly exceptional. As noted by Olmert: "On the whole, such wooden-lined pits do not survive” (220). At the Moore House, the ice house was reconstructed. Olmert reports that inside, one can see “just a shallow wooden-sided depression a few feet deep to indicate a pit” (220). At Cloverfields, we have a little bit more than that.
Since the eighteenth century, this relatively small section of the Cloverfields property performed four different roles. It is likely that during the eighteenth century and for the majority of the nineteenth century, an ice house/dairy structure functioned there. When it stopped performing its cooling function, it became a repository of used bottles and other trash. At some point during the twentieth century, the trash pit was covered to become just another, unnoticeable section, of the lawn. In 2019 it became the site of the finding of one of the few surviving wooden-lined ice houses of the Mid-Atlantic.
Washington, George, “From George Washington to Robert Morris, 2 June 1784.” Founders Online, National Archives, version of 1/18/2019. Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1, 1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992. 420-1.
Tyler, Jason, “Ice House.” Cloverfieldspreservationfoundation.org.
Olmert, Michael. Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic. Cornell UP, 2009.
By: Devin S. Kimmel, of Kimmel Studio Architects, for the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation