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MOUNT AIR - Artifacts Rebuild an Era

By Janet Sutton, Laboratory Archaeologist, Cultural Resources Protection

We live in a county rich in historic resources. European colonists left documents of the times in which they lived. Yet these records, usually of the more prosperous inhabitants, do not tell us about many aspects of their lives. Other people have left no written records at all.

Archaeology can supply some of that missing information. A recent excavation or “dig” at Mount Air plantation, a Cultural Resource Park overlooking Accotink Creek in southeastern Fairfax County, is beginning to reveal volumes of information about how people lived in the years leading up to and following the Revolutionary War.

The historic record tells us that Mount Air was built by Dennis McCarty around 1730 and that he and his descendants lived there until the land was sold in 1860. The family was part of the plantation aristocracy, and Dennis’ wife Sarah was George Washington’s cousin.

The artifacts we’ve found in the foundation of what may have been an ice pit support this picture of genteel living. The ceramics include costly dishes imported from England, China and Germany, as well as earthenware containers made by local potters who may have been slaves or Native Americans.

The number of broken glass bottles indicates that wine was a favorite beverage; other shattered remains indicate it was sipped from fine goblets. Utensils were of pewter or silver plate with wood, bone or ivory handles. Pieces of bone and shell tell us that cows and pigs provided most of the meat that was consumed and that oysters were a favorite.

The elegant coats and waistcoats worn by the men and the ladies’ beautiful dresses have disappeared, leaving nothing behind but their buttons. However, with them we find evidence of the other story that Mount Air has to tell. Leisure and gaiety were only part of life there; the other part was the hard work performed daily by the family and their servants and slaves. The clothing worn by master and slave alike was made on the plantation, and we have found artifacts comprising the “tool kit” that would have been used in this task: thimbles, scissors and numerous straight pins made of brass.

Cooking would have been the job of slaves or servants, and cooking methods would have varied. Generally, the members of the McCarty family and their guests would have eaten roasted meat and vegetables. However, scorch marks on the outsides of earthenware pots and pieces of a large cast-iron cauldron suggest that soups and stews were eaten as well. Since such dishes used poorer cuts of meat and stretched ingredients to feed a larger number of people, the artifacts probably speak to the diet of the less-privileged members of the plantation population.

As yet there is no indication as to how all these artifacts ended up in the hole left by the ice pit. Evidence of burning in the form of melted bottle glass as well as charred bones and ceramics may indicate that the deposition was the result of a fire, possibly resulting from a lightning strike in 1859. Further analysis needs to be done with these artifacts to answer this and other questions. What we have found to date, however, gives us a more complete picture of life in early Virginia.

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