Childhood Home Of George Washington Excavated

George Washington slept there for years — it's the Virginia house he grew up in. Archaeologists have excavated the house, or what's left of it, and they say they've found artifacts that suggest that the Washingtons started out genteel but fell on hard times.

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Archeologists working in Virginia say they've finally found the childhood home of George Washington. It took seven years of digging to uncover the crucial evidence. There was no sign of a cherry tree or a hatchet, but archeologists say they've got a trove of household items that could reveal a lot more about Washington's childhood years. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The Ferry Farm has long been known as the one-time property of Augustine Washington, George Washington's father, and the likely site of George's childhood home. It's situated on a terrace overlooking the Rappahannock River in rural Virginia.

But the problem, says archeologist David Muraca, was that there were five houses buried there.

Mr. DAVID MURACA (Archeologist): We weren't sure where in the puzzle the Washington house was. We knew that there were several houses out there and we needed to sort of find the one that we were looking for.

JOYCE: Muraca and colleagues with the George Washington Foundation started digging seven years ago. Eventually they ruled out the other four houses as too recent. When they got to the last house, there wasn't much to see. Most of the stone in the original foundations had been removed in later centuries to build other homes.

But in what remained there was a crucial clue - mortar that contained oyster shell, a trademark of 18th century building in the region. The archeologists found root cellars and foundations for two fireplaces. In the cellars they uncovered painted plaster for walls and ceilings, animal bones, broken earthenware, glass and lots of straight pins. And they found evidence of a fire.

Mr. MURACA: We found ash. We found people were pushing ash and a lot of burnt domestic artifacts - burnt plaster - into the bottom of that root cellar, because they were abandoning it.

JOYCE: Historical documents that describe a fire that burns down the Washington home on Christmas Eve in 1740, but Muraca says they found sheets of unburned plaster on top of the burned material. That suggests that the fire did not consume the whole house and that the family rebuild the burned section.

Muraca says all this evidence led them to conclude that this was, in fact, George Washington's boyhood home. It was a good sized home - 50 feet by 37 feet. But, he says, the artifacts show how the Washingtons' fortunes reversed.

Mr. MURACA: They start the beginning of the 1740s as a sort of a regional gentry. They have pretty good lives. And then a series of misfortunes occur.

JOYCE: George's sister dies. Then they have the house fire. And in 1743 George's father dies. The elder Washington's will leaves most of the family wealth to his two sons from a previous marriage. George's mother, Mary Washington, and her family see their income drop.

Muraca says there's little evidence in the house of the material things - fancy dishware or decorative figurines - that a genteel 18th century family would normally own.

Mr. MURACA: George Washington's mother stays on the property until 1772, so almost her entire life is spent on that property. And you don't see until the very end of her stay there that the material niceties start to reappear.

JOYCE: At a press conference at the National Geographic Society, which supported the research, archeologist Philip Levy of the University of South Florida said the discovery opens a door for lots of new research.

Mr. PHILIP LEVY (University of South Florida): The childhood period is poorly understood. Now, we are in position now to begin to understand that childhood in a level of detail that has heretofore not been possible for scholars of any type.

JOYCE: The scientists say it will take years to sort through and analyze all the artifacts. They also plan to rebuild the house using period tools and materials similar to those available in the early 18th century.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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