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By George, they’ve dug it

Buried under layers of earth in Fredericksburg, Va., lies what archaeologists hope will provide new insights into the life and times of George Washington.

The 300-acre site, located along the east bank of the Rappahannock River, was once the boyhood home of the nation’s first president and is the focus of a 10-year archeological excavation involving faculty and students from both Mary Washington College and USF.

USF history professor Philip Levy, along with five students, participated in the first year of the dig this summer. Levy said one of the goals of the excavation, which is being sponsored by the George Washington Fredericksburg Foundation, is to determine the exact location of Washington’s home.

However, this is proving to be difficult because Ferry Farm, as the area is known, has experienced a lot of activity, Levy said.

“It’s a tricky site because there are a number of things that took place on it,” Levy said. “With historical archeological sites like this, they don’t just freeze.”

Several buildings were constructed on the property after the Washington family left, Levy said, including a farmhouse that was in operation until the 1960s.

Another problem facing the digging team is the fact that Washington’s first home, purchased on Ferry Farm in 1738, burned down in 1740 and wasn’t rebuilt until 1743, making it difficult to determine which foundation is the original.

“It’s a question of figuring out which buildings date to which periods,” Levy said.

The team has discovered a hearth and a cellar located in one of the houses, but it hasn’t determined whether it was part of the home that burnt down or the home that replaced it, Levy said.

In order to pinpoint the home the hearth and cellar belonged to, Levy said lab analyses of artifacts found on the site can help. Levy said ceramics, such as plates and cups, are the most useful tools in this regard for two reasons: They don’t rot, and the designs are unique to the time.

“They’re not making the same style cup forever,” Levy said. “They change over time.”

In addition, Levy said ceramics give insight into daily life on Ferry Farm. For example, they may help determine what part of the house served as the kitchen.

“You’re going to get, over time, an accretion of the refuse from daily life reflecting the kind of uses and activities that went on in different areas,” Levy said.

When he returns next summer, Levy said he also hopes to gain insight into how plantation economies worked and the effect slave labor had on social interactions.