“You can’t set foot in Mathews County without tripping over a piece of history.” Many of you have heard this before, and you’d be hard pressed to argue against the sentiment. Mathews County, along with Gloucester, Middlesex, and perhaps the majority of the Old Dominion is so infused with history that it is an important part of how we identify ourselves. The artifacts, buildings, and landscapes around us define our communities and inspire great local pride. Mathews County is particularly protective of its history and passionate about preserving it – a point illustrated by several projects they’ve recently supported that are intended to document and preserve county history. One of these is an Archaeological Assessment of Mathews County, undertaken by DATA Investigations over the past year.
How do you assess the archaeology of a county? Good question. It’s not easy. How can you assess the physical evidence of all prior human activity in such a large area – even if Mathews County is the second smallest county in Virginia? Our first step: pull together everything we already know. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) has an inventory of archaeological sites in Mathews County. When we began the project in 2014 there were already over 140 sites- each site location corresponding to at least three artifacts and classified by its function and era. The sites had been recorded by both professional and amateur archaeologists, but occasionally by property owners, museum professionals, and others – a true community-created list. And while that number seems large, Mathews is one of the most under-surveyed counties in Virginia (neighboring Middlesex has only 62, while Gloucester County has 476 sites, and Fairfax County is the most-documented in the state with 3740). There are likely thousands of archaeological sites in Mathews County, we just haven’t found most of them yet.
What kind of sites are already known? The inventory includes much more than just eighteenth-century plantation sites and prehistoric campsites. There are Revolutionary War-era sites related to Lord Dunmore’s occupation of Gwynn’s Island, colonial-era barrel wells eroding from the shoreline of Milford Haven, and a mid-seventeenth-century farmstead that may be one of the earliest European settlements in Mathews County. There are also the earthworks at Fort Nonsense, Woodland-period Virginia Indian settlements near New Point Comfort, and early twentieth-century African-American house sites representing the first generation of freedom following the Civil War.
But the most surprising aspect to us was the absence of many sites you might expect to find in Mathews County. There were no ship building sites, no colonial taverns, and no Paleo-Indian sites, distinguished by the fluted projectile points that mark some of the earliest habitation in this hemisphere. There were no mills (tide or grist), no Civil War-period encampments, and almost no family cemeteries. Does this mean that these sites don’t exist in Mathews County? Certainly not! The citizens of Mathews County already knew where many additional sites were, often filling in some of the knowledge gaps that we had noticed. The second part of our assessment was to talk with local residents, look at the artifacts they had and the locations where they were found, and inventory these and other sites – all without putting a single shovel in the ground.
Our assessment of Mathews County’s archaeology was intended first and foremost to expand the number of inventoried sites, connecting and making the information on these sites accessible to planners, the DHR, and Mathews County and its residents. We added 51 new sites (and updated 67 others so that they are now much more complete) to the DHR’s inventory and are currently completing a detailed report that discusses these additions, and also provides recommendations for what should be done next. Even with the increase in the number of sites, there are large portions of Mathews County that are still under-documented, but undoubtedly contain evidence of significant parts of our shared heritage. And what of the known sites? In the report, we recommend ways to research and preserve these important properties, working with property owners and ensuring that the public interest is served through the protection of historic places and important information. Two things were made very clear during this assessment: that Mathews County had many more archaeological sites than were previously known, and that this project would only be the beginning of a much longer effort to document the buried history of this area.
If you are a resident of Mathews and have found artifacts on your property or may have some information about archaeological sites in the county (or in neighboring counties- we work throughout the Middle Peninsula), please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Although the current survey project is being wrapped up and will soon result in a report, we will continue to look for new sites so that we can keep this effort to document Mathews’ history going.
Few people who don’t live along the creeks or beneath the shaded canopy of Mathews County know its historic architecture. Like many who reside in this wonderfully out-of-the-way community, the building afficionados of this region relish its architectural gems, and appreciate the sometimes eclectic combination of agricultural and maritime landscapes, along with the occasional urban influences that arrived with early vacationers or through steamboat routes connected to Norfolk, Baltimore, and other cities. Mathews County has a little bit of everything, ranging from palatial Georgian mansions, to the modest 1920s farmhouse, with the occasional International-style house or Civil War earthwork thrown in for good measure.
We have had the pleasure of getting to know the buildings, people and places of Mathews County through our work with the Mathews County Historical Society and several other local historic interest groups who have teamed up with the County and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) to support an architectural inventory. The project involved our team of architectural historians driving throughout Mathews County, working with local residents to survey buildings of every type and period. After filling out (or revising) over 200 inventory forms for sites across Mathews, we’ve gotten to know a lot more about the buildings, wharves, country stores and post offices from Bohannon to Bavon, Gwynn’s Island to Mobjack, and North to Mathews Courthouse (and a few places in between – like Moon, Shadow, and Bayside). We love the place names of Mathews, as they tempt us to delve further into the county’s history. At the end of the survey we were both impressed and inspired. What an amazing place, replete with great architecture and a great sense of place where the residents truly appreciate their history.
We’ve met many wonderful people during this process who have shared many of their stories, pictures, and research. From the wonderful staff at the Mathews Memorial Library, to the dedicated members of the Mathews County Historical Society, we’ve made new friends and shared in new discoveries. We feel like we are walking in the footsteps of prominent local historians, like Milton Murray II, who did so much and should be recognized even beyond Mathews for their hard work. And so our project, which will be available to the public soon, will continue in the months to come.
The first outgrowth of this project that we will pursue, is to work further with the G.B. Lorraine Collection for Mathews at the Virginia State Library. This collection include photos, property notes and other information for more than 300 properties sold by real estate agent and historian George Lorraine from the 1930s to the 1960s, and includes both historic and relatively recent buildings from across Mathews County (not to mention Gloucester, Middlesex, and other localities in Virginia).
We would like to locate all these buildings, or building sites, if they are no longer standing. Do you have an older home? There may be pictures of it in this collection. This is a great opportunity to bring these things to life, to build up an already amazing archive at the Mathews Memorial Library, and add to the history of Mathews County. Contact us if you have a home you’d like to learn more about – and don’t forget about archaeology too (our archaeological survey of the county is just beginning, and we’re looking to document those sites as well, from the Prehistoric period up through the early 20th century). Mathews County history is all around us – and we can’t wait to discover it with you.
Do you live in an old house? Is there one down your street? Do you remember where you found that tobacco pipe stem, that arrow head, or that old piece of pottery along the beach or in the backyard garden? Well – we’d love to talk with you. Especially if you live in Mathews. While the Fairfield Foundation is always looking to inventory archaeological and architectural sites, we have the wonderful opportunity this winter and spring to be a big part of “The Year of Discovering Mathews County History.”
The Mathews County Historical Society, Mathews County local government, and many of the history-related non-profit organizations in the community are banding together this year to celebrate Mathews history and raise awareness of the amazing resources that survive, including buildings, archaeological sites, and cultural landscapes. As part of this, we are working with these community groups and private individuals (maybe even you!) to inventory architectural and archaeological sites throughout the county in the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) site inventory files. These files, which form an invaluable record of historic resources in the Commonwealth, are for use by scholars and the general public to learn about the history of the county and other localities in Virginia. The VDHR website also has information on preservation incentives such as tax credits, easements, and honorary recognition programs that encourage stewardship of Virginia’s history.
Our goal is to inventory 170 previously undocumented historic buildings and 80 archaeological sites in Mathews County while updating existing inventory forms for 50 architectural and approximately 60 archaeological sites. Mathews is considered one of the most under-surveyed localities in Virginia and the VDHR was excited to contribute matching funds for the architectural survey. The County is leading by example on the Middle Peninsula, joining King William County this year to document their historic resources and to build awareness of the many treasures we have in our communities.
The county-wide survey began in November with public meetings that brought interested community groups to the table to discuss sites they would like to see inventoried. We will build on this early success by reaching out to you and others throughout the next several months as we visit historic properties and ask owners for their permission to include their historic properties (archaeological and architectural) in our project. We are anxious to hear your stories, learn about your love of these buildings and sites, and record these resources for future generations. Please email or call us (email@example.com; 804-815-4467) and share your history with us.
For the third year in a row, the Fairfield Foundation and the Middle Peninsula Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV), led a great group of dedicated volunteers on a shovel test pit survey across the grounds of the future Middle Peninsula State Park, near Rosewell in Gloucester County. A damp and gray Tuesday morning started the survey out on a soggy note, but after just a few shovel tests, the clouds parted and the sun graced us with its presence (and its warmth!) for the remainder of the survey. The beautiful spring weather created great spirits and great enthusiasm for all those involved!
Pattie, a certification student, pauses her STP excavation to pose for a picture in the sun!
Accompanied by State Archaeologist Mike Barber, a group of enthusiastic volunteers as well as students in the ASV’s Archaeological Technician Certification Program enjoyed the sunshine while digging a series of shovel test pits across several agricultural fields on the state park. Building on a project that was begun in 2011 and continued in 2012, these excavations focused on testing the remainder of the field areas closest to the Rosewell Visitor Center. Our goal was to identify any prehistoric or historic archaeological sites and better map their boundaries.
Previous archaeological testing had indicated the presence of two historic archaeological sites in these areas, so our goal was to further refine the boundaries of the sites as well as learn more about what they might represent. All of this land was associated with Rosewell plantation from the 17th century to the late 19th century, and this work will help us better understand the evolution of the broader agricultural landscape as the Page family, African slaves, and English indentured servants worked to clear forests, plant tobacco, and build the houses, fences, roads and other infrastructure that defined this area for centuries. We did not always find many artifacts, but this information will be invaluable as we strive to learn more about the creation of plantations on a broad scale. Our efforts will also help guide the planning process on the state park, as we identify areas that deserve preservation or more research prior to any park infrastructure projects. The Middle Peninsula State Park will be a valuable recreational facility for the region, and the history and archaeology of this land are remarkable assets.
For three years, the Middle Peninsula State Park Survey has offered ASV certification students within the region an excellent opportunity to get archaeological experience in the field. Not only does this project benefit certification students by providing them with survey experience, but each year it also coincides with a required certification lecture. This year, State Archaeologist Mike Barber spoke to the group extensively about zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains from archaeological contexts), and everyone learned a lot! We plan to offer a similar opportunity in 2014, so stay tuned.
Mike Barber (left) provides a hands-on experience for certification students by sharing a collection of faunal remains.
Certification students and volunteers examine examples of faunal remains.
If you’d like to learn more about the certification program, you can find details on the ASV website. By following the Certification Program on Facebook you can stay in the loop about all upcoming certification fieldwork opportunities!
If you’re interested in hearing more particulars about the Middle Peninsula Chapter of the ASV, catch up on our past blog post about the Chapter, and be sure to also check out the ASV 2012 newsletter article (page 12) which sums up the variety of activities that the chapter has been involved in over the past few years!
And don’t worry if you missed out on this opportunity to come dig with Fairfield staff and volunteers, because we have a busy schedule of spring and summer activities planned! You can stay up to date and involved in a variety of ways – join our email list to learn about dig days, follow The Fairfield Foundation on Facebook, and definitely check out the new Events page on our website, where you can find event dates and descriptions for the coming months!