Broaddus Flats
Assassquin Plantation
44Hn254
 


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The House at Broaddus Flats (44Hn254)

by Tom Hobbs

Note: Click on images to view them larger and to read a description.

All houses in which men have lived and died
Are haunted houses: through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.
—Longfellow

When excavations at Broaddus Flats (44Hn254) began in the Fall of 1992, the author and his young students from the Mathematics and Science Center really did not know what to expect. The most we could hope for, if this were like practically every other dig in a cultivated field, would be the dark stains in the light brown subsoil of posts that once supported an earthfast house. These posts, hopefully, would indicate a pattern that would show us the dimensions of a house built as a temporary structure—one that had long since burned or rotted into oblivion.

However, in the ten years of excavation on the site, we have not found a single posthole within the immediate area of the house. Instead, students began removal of topsoil (sifting to recover artifacts) and, in the process, hit some bricks in situ about 12” below the surface. In the coming weeks, we uncovered the entire gable end foundation to the west side of a structure, neatly cut off by the plow at approximately 12” – 14” below the surface. The brickwork stretched for 21’ almost to the inch, and chimney “cheeks” for a 6’ closed-in fireplace were clearly discernable . This foundation, however, exhibited some unusual features as well. Excavators noticed that the foundation was comprised entirely of brick “bats” (that is, broken bricks) and that they terminated at only 6’ into the main part of the house.

We next decided to see if this structure may have had another gable-end brick foundation—this time on the east side—so we began probing the topsoil at a distance of about 15’ eastward about every foot. At about 40’ from the west foundation, we struck another group of bricks in situ—this soon turned out to be the east gable-end foundation, a mirror image of that on the west exactly 42’ away. This foundation, although very exact in its measurements also, was again comprised of brick bats and stretched only 6’ into the house area. Suspecting that postholes must exist between the two brick foundations, the author next opened 3’ wide trenches between the “cut-off” gable-ends—posts that surely would have supported the sills on the north and south sides of the structure. After weeks of searching, we found not a single colonial posthole, only a series of 3” stains indicating an earlier Indian posthole pattern.

After the discovery of a 135 lb. stone in the rubbish-filled cellar in 1995, the author has concluded (for now) that heavy stones such as this must have been set under the sills, probably about halfway, to give the needed support. Evidently, the house site on Broaddus Flats used to have several large stones. These were removed earlier in the century, most often by the man who farmed the property between 1961 and 1990. His son informed me that several large stones were extracted from the soil and ‘ tossed into the river ’ nearby. In the fall of 2002 during the bad drought, I easily found eleven large stones, some with tool marks evident, in a cluster just below the embankment.

Examples of subterranean stone foundations for homes are rare in colonial Tidewater, Virginia, but archaeologists have found a few. The most notable, in the author’s view, is the 42’ x 24’ continuous foundation of roughly-dressed English siltstone at Flowerdew Hundred Plantation discovered by archaeologists working for the College of William & Mary in the early 1970s. On closer examination, archaeologists discovered the scant remains of mortared bricks on top of the west wall of the structure; the farmer’s plow had left only this meager evidence of a brick foundation once visible above ground level. The author has been excavating a Federal Period home site (about 1810) in Hanover County, Virginia, on Camp Hanover property, using the young campers themselves to dig out the only remains of the burned structure. We have not uncovered to date the entire house site, but the part we have excavated clearly shows the use of stone and brick piers, spaced unevenly and buried about one foot into the soil, to support the sills and floor joists.

Although I have been describing deep-set foundations where stone and brick were employed together by early American builders, it is entirely conceivable that piers of stone or brick alone could have been set into shallow depressions under the sills here at 44Hn254. This method was used well into this century, especially in the western parts of Virginia where stone is plentiful. Employing this technique would allow for much air to circulate under the house, or perhaps account for a reliable way for builders to level the structure on a hillside. The author’s Camp Hanover house site is on a slight grade that leads down to a spring. If this house site had ever been put under the plow, any trace of stone and brick piers would have disappeared, except perhaps for a few large stones in the topsoil. Some excavated continuous foundations have gaps that still puzzle archaeologists. Were these to allow small domesticated animals to live underneath the house, or for the free flow of air to keep the sills and floor joists dry? or both?

Student excavators cleaning off topsoil in front of the east hearth in 1993 came across a large dark stain in the subsoil. This turned out to be a root pit or root “cellar” measuring 4.5’ x 2.5’ and 2.5’ into the subsoil. This feature had two discernable levels—several inches of compacted ash with some burned artifacts ( mostly clay pipe parts ), and a thick layer of building debris from the demise of the house, probably in the mid 18th century. The frequency and function of the root pit on house sites of this time period in Virginia history has been explored in some depth by Dr. William Kelso in his 1984 publication, Kingsmill Plantations 1619-1800: Archaeology of Country Life in Colonial Virginia.

Here he points out that this subterranean feature was used as early as the late 17th century and, on slaves’ cabins, as late as the early 19th century for storage of rooted plants, such as potatoes, parsnips, carrots, etc. The early pits seemed to be no more than uneven holes in the ground with natural clay walls; ours at Broaddus Flats was just such a hole. Later pits, such as the one associated with the log slave cabin at Bremo Recess Plantation in Fluvanna Co., Va. (see Kelso’s 1982 notes on excavations there) had well-constructed, brick-lined walls.

There is no clear way of knowing when our inhabitants quit using this pit for its original purpose and started dumping ash from the fireplace(s). The heavy, thick layer of brick and mortar rubble in our root pit compacted the ash down to a thin layer of only a few inches. I thought, for a short while, that this feature might be the only evidence we would get of ash disposal on the site, until discovery of the basement in 1994.

Student excavators working in a square on the north side of the house uncovered what turned out to be a rather large ( approx. 30’ X 15’ ) and irregular soil stain containing mostly dark gray loam with a lot of charcoal and ash. This fill soil matched point for point the ash layer in the bottom of the root pit and even had large amounts of burned animal bones and pipe parts protruding from the top.

This feature also appeared to be an extension of the main house to the north, and, to the author, was perhaps a “ wing “ stretching out at least 30’ from the main house. We decided to bisect the feature on an east-west axis in order to obtain a profile of the later fill into it. This action produced dramatic results and even resulted in the discovery of another major feature—brick steps leading from the outside down into the cellar. These steps were well-made and well preserved, missing only their oak plank “noses” but still retaining the two brick piers that supported the sill above. We discovered the first of these latter features in the top foot of excavations in the cellar’s south side. Our profile cut nearly exactly down the middle of the steps and clearly showed that large amounts of water, sand and gravel once poured down this cavity into the cellar, partially filling it ( mid to late-18th century flood?). This, however, was only part of the story—at least the “ kitchen wing “ burned shortly afterwards, laying down a thick layer of building debris and burned artifacts of all sorts. Excavators found a thin layer of yellow-red clay in the top of the feature—this layer was uneven and stretched about 6’ across the top. This appears to have been a later plug to bring the level of the basement even with the surface.

In 1996, students began the removal of fill soil from the basement’s north half and discovered no new features, but thousands more artifacts. A more complete discussion of some of the artifacts appears on another page on this Web site.

Excavators could find no evidence of brick walls in the cellar, only scant traces of wooden boards running vertically on the south wall. The basement had a clay floor. We could find no traces of a subterranean pit in this floor. A few late-17th century artifacts had been walked down into this soft clay surface before the entire floor was covered by a lens of fine dark gray ash and black loam.

After all drawings and photographs were complete on the cellar, we began removal of topsoil from the area north of the cellar in hopes of revealing a curious-looking feature that appeared to be the edge of a posthole. Fill in this feature was identical with that of the root pit and the cellar. Our curiosity was immediately tweaked when students discovered two early 18th century pipe bowls while cleaning off the surface. Then more discoveries—another line of bricks (or more accurately, brick bats) 2.5 bricks thick and stretching east-west for 17’ exactly. This was undoubtedly the foundation for the kitchen fireplace. Unlike the other two foundations, this had only two slots – one for the main fireplace (8’ wide) and the other for the oven (6’ wide). It was under the latter feature that the builder had dug a shallow pit for ash from the oven to fall down into; it was the edge of this feature that we originally confused with a posthole. Artifacts in this feature were limited to a few pipe parts (burned) and several nails.

Taking this newest find into consideration, it was tempting to declare that the dimensions of the “kitchen wing” were simply 32’ x 17’, but in order to verify this assumption we needed to explore off at least one of the corners (NW or NE) to see if we could discover a large corner post. Finding such a post would suggest the wing was somewhat wider than the 17’ fireplace/oven foundation. At this writing (early 2003) student excavators and I have explored to the west for over 20’ and have not discovered a post substantial enough to be a corner post. Therefore, for now, I have concluded that this wing was only 17’ wide. A couple of archeologists have asked if this wing could have, in fact, been the first structure built on this site; then, when the owner got a little wealthier and his family grew, he added on the 42’ x 21’ addition. This is entirely conceivable, but, in my view, would have had to happen by about 1700 or shortly thereafter. I have, however, only one bit of physical evidence to support my assumption and that is, the brick foundations on both “parts” of the house are virtually identical; they are the same depth into the subsoil, comprised of the same brick bats, and the same thickness—2.5 bricks.

Several artists have attempted to draw the house, or more correctly, what the house may have looked like. The author’s favorite is still Gordon Lohr’s rendition, done after we completed excavations on the “kitchen” fireplace.

After some research into building methods in this trans-seventeenth / eighteenth century period, I have come to believe that this structure probably had features characteristic of most Anglo-American homes of this so-called Transitional Period, a building style that exhibited both the time-tested Medieval methods and the new emerging Georgian style. What is fairly clear is that this structure shows all the earmarks of a hall / parlor floor plan, with a central passageway, and a rather good-size wing stretching northward in the back (or front?).

With the 1997 discovery of a cluster of postholes on the south face of the house, we are left with little doubt that this structure had a covered porch entranceway, leading into a central passage, which in turn bisected the 42’ x 21’ addition. The close proximity of this porch / entrance with the slot trench (containing the defense / stockade fence) puzzled us at first. Why would anyone cram the house so close to the fence, leaving little room to approach the main door? If defense was, in fact, foremost on the owner’s mind, as I think it was, then it stands to reason that someone aiming a gun out an upstairs window could command quite a view of the whole area south of the compound. Also, if this farm is Assassquin Plantation, the family seat of David Crafford (See "History of the Broaddus Flats Site" for more information), one has to keep in mind that he was killed by Pamunkey Indians in 1710.

As of this writing, excavators are chasing a narrow (14”) and shallow (5”) trench located west of the house and only 10’ from the west chimney foundation. It is filled with a medium gray loam and lots of burned artifacts, mostly from the 18th century. Recently I ran across distinct evidence of a burned post in a new section of the trench being uncovered—the first of its kind in over 12’ of the trench already excavated. The nature of this feature as a whole (i.e. flat-bottomed with vertical sides and running very straight) reminds me of a similar feature we excavated at Flowerdew Hundred Plantation in the early 1970s. Here, the builder’s of Gov. Yeardley’s “country house” had added a kitchen wing (we surmised) to the main house, with its foundation of stone and brick. Not having (or not caring to procure) stone or brick for the subterranean footing, our colonial builders had probably hewn square beams or sills, perhaps of oak or chestnut, and placed them into their shallow trench to serve as a quick foundation. Unless treated with brine, such a foundation could not hope to survive more than ten or fifteen years. At this point in our excavations, the trench at Assassquin looks like just such a feature.

Date posted: 05.15.03

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