The Archaeology of Rich Neck Plantation (44WB52): Description of the Features

Part of the Rich Neck (44WB52) project

Author(s): David Muraca; Philip Levy; Leslie McFaden

Year: 2003


In 1988, two boys found several artifacts while playing on a road construction site that was part of a new housing development. Accompanied by their parents, the boys brought their finds into Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeology laboratory to see if the fragments were important. The curators at the lab are frequently called on to identify recently unearthed objects, most of which turn out to be modern castoffs. Once in a great while, however, someone comes in with an artifact that is an impressive example of colonial craftsmanship or that has a significant provenience. What the boys found fell into the latter category, and their visit would trigger a massive archaeological investigation that would take eight years to complete. It had been a long-standing research goal of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Archaeological Research (D.A.R.) to investigate the colonial plantations that surrounded Williamsburg, and the date of manufacture for the artifacts found by the children indicated they had stumbled onto one. An excavation team dispatched to explore the housing development quickly uncovered other artifacts and architectural remains associated with a seventeenth-century plantation known as Rich Neck near where the boys were playing, as well as the remains of an early nineteenth-century slave quarter.

In 1992, McCale Development Corporation planned to develop the area as part of the Holly Hills residential development, and as part of their proffer to the city they contracted with the D.A.R. to evaluate the archaeological significance of the seventeenth-century site. Test units, placed at 10 meter intervals, uncovered several artifact concentrations and the remains of a brick foundation. That brickwork later proved to be only one of a number of structures located on Rich Neck’s homelot

(Muraca 1993). Even though the site had been plowed throughout the nineteenth century and later logged in the early 1900s, it was still in excellent shape.

Recognizing the scale and importance of these findings, Colonial Williamsburg, the McCale Development Corporation, and the City of Williamsburg agreed to sponsor efforts to excavate the site. Colonial Williamsburg accordingly made plans to use its summer field school, run in conjunction with the College of William & Mary, to accomplish the task. The excavation was originally conceived as a salvage operation that would last only ten weeks. Midway through the summer, however, it became apparent that completion within this time frame was impossible given the growing size and complexity of the site. In response, McCale adjusted property boundaries so that the site’s major components could be encompassed within two lots, which the City and Colonial Williamsburg then purchased and agreed to sell when the excavation was completed. The developer established two rules which were in effect for the entire dig. No machinery was to be used and no live trees with a diameter greater than 4 inches could be cut down.

With a new schedule in place, the field school spent the remainder of the first summer investigating features outside of the purchased lots, and after the field school was over, a professional crew continued this work for an additional two months. From 1994 through 2000 field schools returned to work at the site for ten weeks each summer. In 1998, Colonial Williamsburg sold its lot to individuals interested in preserving the site permanently. The city has just recently sold its parcel as well, but with a protective easement to shield the surviving architectural remains from destruction during the lot’s development.

Also found at the site was a slave quarter that was part of eighteenth-century Rich Neck. It was located on the northern edge of the seventeen-century complex and was excavated in 1994 and 1995 by Maria Franklin and Anna Agbe-Davies. Separate reports exist for these excavations (Franklin 1997; Agbe-Davies 1999). Most of the initial salvage excavation focused on the area in the path of the development’s main road. Plowed layers in this area were removed by machine, exposing numerous features including two post-in-ground structures, fences, a trash pit, and a man-made ditch—all of which were excavated. During these hectic first few weeks, field school students were instructed to hastily shovel away large areas of plowed soils without the benefit of screens in order to get at features that had survived underneath. Of course, both techniques resulted in a permanent loss of data, and after the time constraints were lifted a new excavation strategy was implemented that allowed plow zone material to be recovered over the rest of the site.

Cite this Record

The Archaeology of Rich Neck Plantation (44WB52): Description of the Features. David Muraca, Philip Levy, Leslie McFaden. Williamsburg, VA: Department of Archaeological Research, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 2003 ( tDAR id: 6081) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8GB2315

This Resource is Part of the Following Collections

Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 1636 to 1700

Spatial Coverage

min long: -77.498; min lat: 36.633 ; max long: -75.41; max lat: 39.368 ;

File Information

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richnecktechnical.pdf 14.49mb May 7, 2011 11:20:08 AM Public