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Foundations of a Founding Father
Intrepid Researchers Uncover Artifacts From George Washington's Childhood Home

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

On a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock River, 50 miles south of the capital city that bears his name, archaeologists have unearthed a site that provides what they call the most detailed view into George Washington's formative years: his childhood home and, likely, the objects of his youth.

There are marbles and wig curlers, utensils and dinnerware. A pipe, blackened inside, carries a Masonic crest and dates to when he joined the Fredericksburg Masonic Lodge.

The announcement of the long-sought discovery came yesterday, after seven years of digging and several disappointments.

"What's so great about this dig is that when people talk about Washington, they always talk about his adult life," said David Muraca, director of archaeology for the George Washington Foundation, which owns the Ferry Farm property, where the discovery was made. "So this will expand the knowledge about his early years."

It was always known that Washington grew up on the Stafford County property near Fredericksburg, but until now, no one could locate the remains of the house on the 100-plus acres or unearth the artifacts buried inside.

"It's an amazing time," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said yesterday after addressing a crowd gathered for the public unveiling. "It's a very important site that was thought to have been lost."

The governor predicted that the site crucial to the first president's life will draw tourists.

"This now gives us one more part of the story to tell," Kaine said. "We are a nation now where people want to have heroes."

Washington's family moved to the property in 1738, when he was 6, and he is believed to have lived in a clapboard-covered wooden home until his 20s. It was there that he lost his younger sister, Mildred, then his father, Augustine. And if it were true that the battered bark of a cherry tree was the first test of Washington's honesty, the debated story most people know of his childhood, then that, too, would have happened on this swath of land now speckled with magnolia and pine trees.

"What we have at Ferry Farm for the first time is the ability to look at a text of his childhood," said Philip Levy, an archaeologist and a history professor at the University of South Florida. "This is the only place we're going to get that."

A day before the official announcement, Muraca and Levy stood at the lip of the 50-foot-wide hole of displaced dirt and studied the culmination of their seven-year effort. About a dozen workers, on hands and knees, swept softly at the soil.

Even at this early stage, the men said, previously unknown details of Washington's life have emerged.

From a concentration of charred plaster, they can tell that a fire thought to have destroyed the house on Christmas Eve in 1740 was much smaller and less destructive. An expensive tea set dating to the last decade that the Washingtons lived in the house tells them that the family's financial strain suffered after Augustine Washington's death probably eased. And from the layout of the house, with the front door overlooking the river, they described a "literal crossroads" in Washington's life. Ships at that time could traverse the river to the Atlantic Ocean, and the area's roads were opening up a world to the West, Levy said.

"He has this whole world passing in front of him," Levy said. "He starts to understand the value of these roads, and that begins here."

Part of the difficulty with the dig arose because the land was far from untouched. Within the footprint of the house, 20th-century sewer pipes peek through the dirt, and a large area where the soil changes color reveals where Civil War troops dug a trench. In 1994, Wal-Mart proposed building a store on the property but encountered opposition from Stafford residents.

"It's sort of a miracle that as much as the building is left, considering all the bad things that happened to it," Muraca said.

Before finding Washington's home, the team spent four years unearthing two other structures, only to find that one was too old and the other too new. The last one, which dated to about 1850, a century too late, became nicknamed among the crew as "Daddy's little disappointment."

Three years ago, team members homed in on the site where they would discover the house. They found two stone-walled cellars, two root cellars and the remains of two fireplaces. They also unearthed 500,000 artifacts, many domestic in nature and dating to the period Washington's family would have lived there: sewing scissors, a brass wick trimmer, figurines that might have once sat on a mantel. A carnelian bead, which originated in India and made its way to Africa, was also discovered and is believed to have hung from the necklace of a slave.

When Muraca finally realized what they found, he said: "I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe for two days."

It's not like searching for the Titanic, in which a ship found underwater will have its name emblazoned on the side, Levy said. The confirmation comes in dismissing all doubts that the ship, or, in this case, the structure, could be anything else. It helped that by the time they found Washington's home, they had accounted for every other major structure on the property, he said.

The project, headed by the George Washington Foundation and funded by National Geographic and the Dominion Foundation, will eventually include reconstruction. The archaeologists also are hoping to find structures that accompanied the house, such as barns and slave quarters. They believe they have found a kitchen.

"The discovery is just the beginning," Muraca said. "It's like when NASA goes to the moon and picks up moon rocks for the first time. That's a really cool day, but it's not until you end up getting them in the lab that the real findings take place."

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