When archaeologist Michael Roller picked the broken pieces of china from the dirt outside Arlington House, he brushed off the grime and saw golden decoration glinting in the sunlight.
Roller, who works for the National Park Service, could also see the words “Georgia” and “New Hampshire” delicately inscribed around the edge of what had been a plate — each state’s name ringed by an oval and each oval joined to another by a golden link.
He shouted that he had found something special.
This week, the Park Service announced that Roller’s dig last summer at the historic house in Arlington National Cemetery turned up rare fragments of the “states china,” a set of dishware commissioned in China for first lady Martha Washington over 200 years ago by a Dutch admirer of the United States.
It was the first time that remnants of the dishware had been unearthed at Arlington House since the 1950s, Roller said.
An expert at George Washington’s Mount Vernon said the discovery, even of fragments of the setting, was important.
“I think it is terribly exciting,” said Susan Schoelwer, a senior curator at Mount Vernon. “Any more Washington stuff that we can find ... expands and ... enriches our understanding of the Washingtons and their history, and the legacy of Washington as it came down through the 19th century and the 20th century.”
Only 21 pieces of what was the custom-decorated 45-piece set are known to exist, Schoelwer said, and some of them are damaged. (Mount Vernon has eight. The White House has three. The rest are scattered among other institutions.)
The dig, and an archaeological survey at the site, are part of a $12.35 million renovation project at the property, funded by billionaire philanthropist David M. Rubenstein. (The recovered artifacts are being preserved at the Park Service’s Museum Resource Center in Landover, Md.)
The 200-year-old Arlington House, famous as the namesake of the national cemetery that surrounds it and the former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, has been closed since March. The renovation is expected to be finished next year.
Meanwhile, the site has been revealing some of its secrets.
The survey also turned up part of the foundation of the vanished “Temple of Fame,” which stood in the garden outside Arlington House from 1884 to 1967, when it was demolished.
The temple, with stone columns and a tin dome, bore the last names of George Washington and Civil War heroes including Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
Experts have also discovered evidence that a hill where the house was built was leveled for construction, and that Native Americans had likely occupied the site long before.
Also found were two broken pieces of another set of china, made for George Washington in honor of the Society of the Cincinnati, a group made up mostly up of Continental Army and Navy officers.
Roller, in a telephone interview, said he also found evidence of “some catastrophic fire that we don’t know about. ... It’s not documented anywhere.”
The mansion, with its eight columns and grand portico, was built mostly by the slaves of George Washington Parke Custis between 1802 and 1818.
Custis, who had about 60 slaves at Arlington, was the grandson of Martha Washington from her first marriage. After his father died in 1781 he was brought to Mount Vernon, where he was raised as a son by George and Martha Washington.
He grew to idolize George Washington and had Arlington built in part as a memorial to the nation’s first president.
At Arlington House, he gathered Washington memorabilia and artifacts he had inherited or collected. They included his grandmother’s bequest of her “set of tea china that was given me by Mr. VanBraam every piece having MW on it,” as Martha Washington put it in her will.
The story of the china goes back to the Dutch merchant Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, who designed and commissioned the set in China in 1796.
It was common for aristocratic Europeans to have specialized settings made in China and shipped to Europe, Schoelwer said. Blank porcelain would be made and then taken to the port city of Guangzhou, then called Canton, for decoration.
Van Braam designed the plates with the MW monogram at the center of a sunburst. He chose the Latin motto Decus et Tutamen ab Illo, which means “our union is our glory and our defense against him,” Schoelwer said. The “him” referred to King George III of England.
Enclosing the design is a blue snake swallowing its tail, which signifies eternity, Schoelwer said. The names of the 15 states that comprised the United States at that time were placed inside linked ovals, which signifies the union, she said: “There’s a lot of symbolism packed into this.”
“We think that it was a dessert service,” she said, and included two-handled cups for chocolate. “It was a very elegant service ... mostly the kind of service that you put on display."
Van Braam arrived in Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital, to deliver his gift in 1796. George Washington was near the end of his second term as president.
Martha Washington kept much of the set when she and her husband moved back to Mount Vernon after Washington’s presidency. She may have given away some pieces, Schoelwer said.
Custis must have brought what was left to Arlington after the Washingtons died.
During the Civil War, Arlington House was vacated by the family of Robert E. Lee and occupied by Union forces. Some of the china may have been packed in barrels for storage.
“We’re not sure how many are left at the time of the Civil War,” Schoelwer said. “But many of the pieces have a fair amount of damage to them and have been pieced back together. It looks like they were in the process of war [and] handled roughly."
Roller said he thinks the pieces he found in the trash pit outside came from an earlier period in the house’s history.
He had dug down about two feet through layers of soil and deposits of kitchen refuse when he spotted the broken pieces encrusted in earth. When the dirt “popped off,” he saw the striking ornamentation.
“All the gold, all the gilded parts just glittered in the sun,” he said. “It was definitely a moment. I’m sure I screamed something.”